SEOUL — Just a few days before last week’s six-nation conference in Beijing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, a minor-but-fascinating incident occurred in this capital of South Korea. Some North Korean journalists, in town to cover an Asian sports event, attacked a group of anti-Communist South Korean demonstrators, tore down their banners denouncing the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, and were only narrowly prevented by the police from beating up a German doctor famous as a campaigner for human rights above the DMZ.
One has to admit that these reporters demonstrated a refreshing absence of journalism-school piety about reportorial objectivity. It would be interesting to read their reports of those athletic events that the North Koreans lost — if there were any such reports. To the diplomats en route to the Beijing conference, however, it must have crystallized the dilemma facing the five other nations negotiating with North Korea.
For the totalitarian Communist regime in Pyongyang — along with Fidel Castro the last remaining fossil of Stalinism in world politics — is disturbingly given to these erratic outbursts of violence and aggression at almost every level. It wiped out half the South Korean cabinet in a bombing in the seventies; its naval vessels regularly intrude into South Korean waters and fire on southern ships; it has admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens on the beach, abducting them in submarines to North Korea, and holding them there; its various delegations abroad occasionally take to fisticuffs; and so on.
These actions are aggressively undiplomatic even by the loose standards of the age of terrorism. How can and should the rest of the world deal with a regime responsible for them? And, more particularly, can other nations do nothing while such an erratic and aggressive power acquires nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them?
Before the Beijing conference, it seemed as it there were two opposite answers to these questions. On the one side there was United States (or, to be more precise, the Bush administration) that favored a strong policy of preventing Pyongyang from becoming a nuclear power at almost any cost — including halting North Korean ships on the high seas if they were believed to be carrying nuclear contraband.
Supposedly favoring a more-accommodating posture of diplomatic negotiations to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in return for such benefits as economic aid, membership of the IMF, non-aggression guarantees, and a sort of ticket to international respectability were four of the nations at Beijing (namely, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea), international liberal opinion in general, and diplomatic veterans of previous U.S.-North Korea talks from the Clinton administration. Indeed, the last-minute resignation of a State Department expert on Pyongyang on the eve of Beijing was widely interpreted as a sign of disquiet in Foggy Bottom at yet another instance of American “unilateralism.”
Nor is the second viewpoint — make diplomacy the priority — without merit. Speaking at a Seoul conference held by the Inter-religious and International Federation for World Peace — an organization founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, also the owner of the Washington Times and United Press International, who in recent years has been an active supporter of North-South reconciliation — several former U.S. diplomats responsible for relations with the two Koreas joined others in sketching out the case for bringing North Korea in from the cold.
Its main points were: that North Korea is not necessarily acting irrationally — Asian history is full of small powers acting aggressively in order to extract respect and concessions from dominant neighbors; that concessions bringing Pyongyang into the international trading system and bodies like the World Bank would gradually create the economic conditions for the same kind of transition to democracy that occurred in South Korea; that North Korea had already taken the first step in this direction by imitating China’s economic reforms and by its “sunshine” policy of opening relations with Seoul; and that friendly diplomatic pressure from China for such changes would achieve more than hostile military threats from the U.S.
Such arguments are not to be dismissed out of hand. We should bear in mind that modern reformist China, with its booming market economy, is only 40 years distant from the madness of Mao’s “cultural revolution” when Chinese diplomats rushed out of the London embassy and attacked policemen and passers-by. Given time, North Korea might conceivably undergo the same peaceful evolution.
With a largely unreconstructed Stalinist regime in Pyongyang pressing ahead with its nuclear program, however, do we have enough time? And are there any signs that Pyongyang is prepared to reach the kind of compromise that would justify relying almost entirely on the diplomatic approach? As the Beijing conference progressed last week, it became clear that all the nations present, not just the U.S., were developing doubts on both scores. And the signs offered by Pyongyang were exactly the opposite of comforting.
An indication of the first was Japan’s firm opening statement that North Korea simply could not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Japanese opinion had been hardening against the North ever since Kim Jong Il had confessed to the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s — an admission that was meant to mollify but actually outraged. And as the only nation that has suffered a nuclear attack, Japan has a unique moral authority in Asia on such matters.
On the second point North Korea’s public admission that it already had a nuclear weapon and was planning to test it forcibly reminded China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea that they are much nearer than the U.S. to Pyongyang, more vulnerable to a nuclear strike from an irrational Pyongyang regime, and so possessing a greater interest in its de-nuclearization. And the clock was not merely ticking — it was speeding up. That removed what might have been pressure on the U.S. to soften its stance towards North Korea and to agree to some kind of non-aggression pact with Pyongyang before the dismantling of the North nukes. They all began to shift in Washington’s direction.
Washington, interestingly, downplayed Pyongyang’s claim as nothing new. It was hoping that Beijing would be the first step in a diplomatic minuet in which the other dancers were coming around to seeing things the American way. And when the Beijing conference ended last Friday with the North Koreans refusing to sign a joint communiqué but agreeing to meet again, that seemed to be happening. For it was not the U.S. but the North Koreans who now looked isolated and “unilateralist.”
Too isolated in fact. For a few days later, Pyongyang withdrew from the negotiating process. That itself, of course, may be a diplomatic ploy. But it reflects the fact that the Beijing Five are now united around the principle that Pyongyang must not become a nuclear power even if they are not yet agreed on how to stop this happening.
What is likely to emerge is a round of talks without Pyongyang in order to hammer out some joint new approach to them. That will probably be some variant of the diplomatic program outlined above for bringing North Korea in from the cold, but one backed by one clear threat of cutting off all economic relations with China. And if that fails? Then preventive military action against its nuclear facilities by, inevitably, the U.S. cannot be ruled out — either as a threat or as a reality.
Which yet again illustrates Frederick the Great’s profound but depressing maxim: “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”
— Editor-at-large of National Review, John O’Sullivan is the newly named editor of The National Interest. This piece was written for the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.