Rudyard Kipling put it well a century ago:
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:—
“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
The Dane in this week’s crisis is Kim Jong Il, the grand panjandrum of North Korea. Last week there was modified rapture in the chancelleries of the six great powers engaged in talking to Kim–Japan, China, Russia, India, South Korea and the United States–because they had negotiated a brand new compromise with him.
This brand new compromise is very similar, if not identical, to the bad old compromise that was agreed between Kim and the Clinton administration, broken by Kim, formally renounced by the incoming Bush administration, and finally resurrected again by the whirligig of time and diplomacy and by a president and a secretary of State desperate for a diplomatic success–any “success”–to stock the legacy cupboard.
The essential deal here is that the North Koreans should shut down their nuclear facilities and accept weapons inspections by the International Atomic Energy Authority in return for normalized relations with the U.S. and large sums in aid and fuel from Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.–i.e., Danegeld.
Is it really that simple?
No. There is some uncertainty about whether the North Koreans will actually get rid of all their nuclear facilities, or merely some, especially since they cheated last time. U.S. officials have responded to this anxiety by claiming that the North Koreans won’t get any aid until they have met a series of “benchmarks” in dismantling the nuclear program. But will the U.S. be able to hold the South Korean government, which was desperate for a deal, to this condition. That must be doubtful.
Who came up with this ridiculous idea?
Ex-President Jimmy Carter. No, really. I know it sounds too good to be true, but when President Clinton seemed prepared to take serious action against North Korea, Carter flew to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and negotiated the first such compromise with the North Korean regime. In effect Carter substituted his own foreign policy for that of the elected president. And we have been living with variations on that policy ever since. Given Carter’s record, it is hardly surprising that today the North Koreans have more nuclear weapons, an advanced nuclear program, offers of money and fuel up to the kazoo, and the diplomatic world beating a path to their door.
But can Kim be trusted to keep his side of the bargain this time?
Well, it’s true that this deal is so good for him and the North Korean government that he really doesn’t need to cheat. Kim gets to keep his rocket programs and his chemical and biological stockpiles; he gets normalized relations with the U.S., which means the removal of North Korea from the State Department’s list of “terrorist nations”; and he gets international respectability. What reasonable despot with a despicable human rights record could ask for more?
At the same time he may not be able to stop himself cheating. He knows that the U.S. government, anxious to parade its sole diplomatic achievement, will be keen to turn a blind eye to any violations of this agreement. So he can probably cheat with impunity. Also, Kim is a very odd duck. Only yesterday, for instance, he saw a Japanese car blocking the road and ordered that all Japanese cars be seized. As South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported dryly, however, this order may not be carried out since the few cars on North Korean roads are almost all Japanese. Still, it’s an odd order for even a despot to issue when he is relying on the Japanese government to come up with subsidies agreed to only last week.
So what will happen?
No one really knows, but one good bet is that even if this deal “works,” it will prove to be a powerful incentive to nuclear proliferation worldwide. The U.S. and its partners in the six-party talks–especially China–have told the rest of the world that one certain way to gouge aid out of the West and the U.S. is to start a nuclearization program for the express purpose of receiving bribes to close it down. As the Geico Gecko says: “Are they going to say ‘I’m so rich that I’m not going to bend down to pick up the cash?’” Probably not. Incidentally, this deal almost certainly explains the otherwise slightly mysterious departure of Ambassador John Bolton a few weeks ago. Bolton was never comfortable with diplomatic humbug, and this deal sinks to depths of humbuggery, into which he probably preferred not to descend.
But surely the only alternative to this deal was war?
Remember that argument well: it is the excuse invariably offered for bad diplomacy. And it doesn’t even have the merit of being true. There is a different diplomatic approach available in the North Korea Human Rights Act. It is backed by an extraordinary bipartisan group including major leaders of the Korean-American community, North Korea policy scholars from the Brookings and Hudson Institutes, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God Church, the National Director of Americans for Democratic Action, and the Executive Directors of Freedom House and the Open Society Policy Center. It argues that the U.S. should not merely respond to Kim’s agenda but should instead demand that human rights violations in North Korea (and in China) be on the negotiating table. And it requires that if (modest) concessions are to be offered to North Korea, then Kim must offer in return an improvement in the people’s rights as well as an abandonment of nuclearization.
That policy has at least a chance of alleviating the sufferings of the North Korean people; the current policy merely rewards their oppressors. As Kipling pointed out, the moral is plain:
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame.
And the nation that plays it is lost!”
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is the author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.