Over the past few years we have been witnessing the slow rolling defeat of the United States at the hands of North Korea. In the past six years this charter member of the Axis of Evil, a country with a nominal GDP slightly less than Aruba — and GDP per capita one-thirteenth that of the island paradise — has gone from being an isolated remnant of Stalinist political theory in action to joining the nuclear club and becoming a major weapons-of-mass-destruction proliferator. This took place while the United States asserted that North Korea should not, must not, will not be allowed to go nuclear, but obviously could not figure out how to get the North to cooperate.
Our latest concession is agreeing to remove North Korea from the list of countries that support terrorism. Pyongyang achieved this diplomatic coup in a manner that has become familiar. North Korea announced it would resume plutonium enrichment at the Yongbyon plant — a facility they said they had disabled — in direct violation of the previous agreement
they had made. Rather than finding some means of punishing them — and really, if we didn’t take punitive action when the North tested a nuclear weapon, would we really be expected to do anything over this? — the U.S. sought terms. North Korea agreed not to resume doing what they had previously agreed not to do, and we gave them what they wanted.
We had been promising to do this for a long time. In the February 13, 2007, Initial Actions Agreement, the United States agreed to “begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism.” Last June President Bush had stated that North Korea would in fact be removed from the list. North Korea was simply prodding us to hurry up. But this is not just about respect. Countries on the terror list are banned from arms export and sales, are subject to various restrictions on economic assistance, and face automatic US opposition to World Bank loans, among other things. So Kim Jong-Il, apparently still living, will be better able to seek the types of assistance necessary to preserve his grotesque utopia. Meanwhile our Japanese allies, who want to learn the fates of 12 Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, and who are a main target for North Korean missiles, were not even consulted. Maybe if Japan had nuclear weapons and behaved erratically they’d get more respect.
The terror listing became a bargaining chip, but it begs the question: Is North Korea in fact a state sponsor of terrorism? According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, North Korea had not actively sponsored terror attacks since 1987, but has given sanctuary to members of the Japanese Red Army. Yet check out this language in a 2004 Congressional Research Service report: “North Korea’s support for international terrorism appears limited at present, its efforts to restart its nuclear program and its role in proliferation of ballistic missiles and missile technology suggest that its removal from the terrorism list will not occur anytime soon.” That was even before North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006. North Korea’s past support for terrorism pales in comparison to the danger the country represents as a purveyor of nuclear and missile technology.
The threat was illustrated last spring when the CIA revealed a videotape presumably of Israeli origin of North Koreans working at the Syrian nuclear site code-named Al Kibar in the summer of 2007. The discovery of North Korean involvement in the Syrian nuclear program reportedly spurred Israel to take action. Al-Kibar was decommissioned by air strike last September. Israel had to act decisively because for them the proliferation issue is less of an abstraction. Israel cannot risk experiments in grand diplomacy. The United States seems to believe that North Korea can be placated and contained until it collapses. But it is clear that North Korea is not contained, and every act of placation has the effect of extending the life of the regime.
The most important lesson from this latest contretemps with the North is that possessing nuclear weapons gives a country a significant advantage in dealing with the United States. Those who argue that nuclear deterrence still works are absolutely right, but unfortunately it works best against the US. Tehran is surely watching these developments closely. The Iranian leadership knows that if Iran can cross the nuclear threshold it will have achieved the ultimate game-changer. Tehran and Pyongyang are reportedly cooperating on constructing Iran’s underground nuclear test facility. And a nuclear Iran will have a great deal more leverage than North Korea, given its strategic location and importance in world energy markets. (Though still only half the GDP per capita of Aruba.)
Our diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis North Korea is not only ineffective, it is setting a dangerous precedent. Decisions taken to deal with the security challenges of northeast Asia have echoes in other more critical parts of the world, whether the United States realizes it or not. North Korea may seem like a nuisance, but it is facilitating the nuclear ambitions of countries that are much more threatening. The world can ill afford many more of these diplomatic triumphs.
— NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the International Security Studies Program at Trinity Washington, senior fellow in national security at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.