The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meets Wednesday in Vienna to discuss North Korea’s recent antics — and the next step could involve bringing the matter before the United Nations Security Council. The meeting could trigger action by the Security Council, but if that doesn’t happen, the administration seems otherwise content to continue pursuing a policy of inaction on Pyongyang.
Although war plans for Iraq command most of the attention, the administration is doing its best behind the scenes to handle North Korea — by doing nothing. The cold-shoulder treatment stifles Pyongyang’s strategy of going “knee-to-knee with the United States,” explains a senior administration official. But the one substantive action the U.S. wants — North Korea’s nuclear malfeasance being examined by the U.N. Security Council — has been getting held up by South Korea.
After news of North Korea’s renewal of its nuclear program broke, the administration endured several months of sometimes-intense criticism. Matters were not helped much when Secretary of State Colin Powell made the Sunday-morning talk-show rounds to assure the American public that the situation in North Korea was not a “crisis” — convincing many viewers with his impassioned tone that, in fact, it was a crisis. That is exactly what North Korea wanted, to be considered a threat on a par with Hussein’s Iraq.
Initially, the Bush administration tried the “friends and allies” route, getting countries in the region who are supposedly tight with the U.S. to lean on Pyongyang. The official line from the State Department (as of Tuesday) is that the U.S. is “working” with, among others, China and South Korea, the two countries that share a border with North Korea. But the “working” approach, in reality, has not exactly worked: Neither Seoul nor Beijing has done much to pressure Pyongyang to shape up. Both are in strong positions to at least make life more difficult for Kim Jong-Il, but China is playing mere spectator — and South Korea has turned obstructionist.
Claiming it has little influence with Pyongyang beyond the power of persuasion, China is trying to convince the United States that it is doing everything it can. But as a senior administration official notes, “China supplies 80 percent of North Korea’s energy — and they haven’t even tried to exploit that leverage.” It seems the only move that China has made is to declare that it desires a nuke-free Korean peninsula — a statement likely more inspired by China’s fear that Seoul might engage in an arms race with its neighbor. But at least the Chinese aren’t following South Korea’s example of actively fighting U.S. efforts to rein in Pyongyang.
The new government in Seoul came into power on a pledge to further “sunshine” policies with North Korea, but recent actions seem to go beyond election promises. “South Korea’s new president is an appeaser,” says a senior administration official, who also notes that Seoul has been trying to prevent the IAEA from taking the necessary steps to trigger U.N. Security Council consideration of North Korea’s actions. Although the benefits of battling the U.S. are not entirely clear, Seoul’s new leaders are testing the U.S.’s patience.
Without support from the two nations in the best position to do so, the only realistic option for the U.S. is to do nothing. Although intentional inaction is “unquestionably the right policy,” according to a senior administration official, that same official warns that that approach “ties right into strategy of those who want to appease with all carrot and no stick.” The most important goal, many in the administration believe, is to not allow North Korea to distract from disarming Hussein, and to keep Pyongyang at bay long enough to deal with that situation after bombs are no longer dropping on Baghdad.
Even if doing nothing is the right direction for the time being, something has to be done about North Korea in the long run. As the Yemen scud missile incident proved, Pyongyang is in the business of shipping arms to the Middle East. In fact, North Korea gets 20-40 percent of its hard currency from international weapons sales.
The IAEA meeting Wednesday — which will include representatives of the Chinese government — might well be the launching pad for consideration of the North Korea situation by the U.N. Security Council, which the administration would see as an improvement to the current inaction. Explains a senior administration official, “Getting this issue into the Security Council would show that we consider their [North Korea's] breach to be a threat to international peace.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.