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On the North Korea Situation


I think the debate over the North Korea missile launch is missing the forest for the tree. Ambassador Bolton may disagree with this, but I think that at the heart of the North Korea situation is an irresolvable policy dilemma that leaves us little choice but to roll with Pyongyang’s punches. In a Corner post two weeks ago, I highlighted a 2006 op-ed by former Clinton officials advocating preemptive strikes on the missile platforms the last time North Korea was getting ready to fire missiles over Japan. I suspect that among the writers’ motivations was a deep regret that Clinton didn’t destroy the Yongbyon reactor when he had the chance (and nearly did it) in 1994. But in truth, their proposal made little sense, because the 2006 missile launch did not represent a major deterioration in the status quo, certainly not on the scale of what Clinton was confronting in 1994. 

The strategy behind the Six Party talks was to unify the countries that form the strategic cordon around North Korea — China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States — behind a single bargaining position. The idea was that the five counter-parties would coordinate their economic assistance to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization. The fatal flaw in this scheme is that North Korea gets most of the economic assistance it needs in the form of bilateral donations of humanitarian aid from some of those very same counter-parties, regardless of its concessions in the Six Party talks. 

The only way the Six Party process might work is to make it the gatekeeper for all economic assistance moving to North Korea from the five counter-parties. But no U.S. administration would be willing to push for holding all humanitarian assistance to North Korea hostage to Kim Jong-Il’s caprices, especially given his evident delight in letting millions of his own people starve so that he doesn’t have to give up any essential part of his nuclear program. The horrors that North Koreans have suffered under this regime are so vast and unbelievable that it makes the State Department’s unwillingness to hold humanitarian assistance hostage to the negotiations entirely understandable, and, in my view, correct. 

Because we are not willing to starve the poor North Koreans, and because Kim Jong-Il is even less willing to give up his nuclear weapons program, neither the Six Party talks nor any other policy scheme anyone has proposed has much chance of working. The window for a real solution to this problem opened and closed in 1994. We shall now have to await the natural and inevitable demise of the regime, and pray that nothing really bad happens between now and then.

I think it was a scandalous mistake for the Bush administration to remove North Korea from the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list when we had evidence that North Korea was helping Syria, another state sponsor of terrorism, to develop its own nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in light of the fact that Cuba remains on the list, the list is now ridiculous. But the State Department has been running its own foreign policy since before WWII, and it always will, except, as under Nixon-Kissinger, when it is cut out of key foreign policy decisions entirely, or when a James Baker comes along to horse-whip the Department into obeying the president. It only stands to reason that Christopher Hill is considered a hero at the State Department: It is the most systematically insubordinate agency of the Executive Branch. This is especially true when the president is unpopular, as Bush was in his second term. On the other hand, here as elsewhere, Bush let Condi Rice convince him that there was no contradiction between his policy and the State Department’s implementation of it, so the responsibility is ultimately his.

What this highlights is that “first, do no harm” is the best we can expect of U.S. policy-makers when it comes to North Korea. That probably goes some way to justifying the lack of any real response to the missile launch. The truth is that a policy of answering provocation with confrontation now has too little potential benefit to be attractive to any U.S. administration, even in view of the arguably marginal downside risk. The missile launch is a provocation, certainly, but it does not make the already-terrible status quo materially worse.

In 1994, the situation was totally different. Allowing North Korea to proceed with the discharge of the plutonium-laden fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor was guaranteed to make a bad situation infinitely worse. The potential strategic benefit of striking Yongbyon then was huge in comparison to the downside risk. Clinton should have called North Korea’s bluff in 1994. He should have realized that North Korea would not react to the elimination of Yongbyon (a strategic asset meant only to guarantee the survival of the regime) by committing suicide in an attack on South Korea. But he didn’t, and North Korea won a huge pot, on an empty hand. Now we are living the consequences. So, as tempting as it may be to criticize Obama for this, let’s keep a clear head, and realize that it was Bill Clinton who left Bush, Obama, and all future presidents with no good options for dealing with this abominable regime. 

Mario Loyola, a former adviser in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a frequent contributor to National Review.