Politics & Policy

Checking Kim

The awful question of what to do.

The Bush administration is not being apocalyptic over North Korea — but that doesn’t indicate a lack of seriousness on the subject. This is not the Clinton administration, after all; these guys know how to think strategically, how not to leak, and how to focus their foreign-policy activity on something other than the frenzied daily news cycle. What, then, are they thinking?

Administration principals seem to be starting from four core assumptions. The first is that the North Korean regime seeks a crisis atmosphere, the better to extort lucre from feckless (or clueless) South Koreans and Japanese, and to divide the U.S. from these two traditional allies. Second, Pyongyang wishes to turn what is and ought to be managed as a regional problem into a bilateral U.S.-North Korean affair. They wish this because only the U.S. can supply what the North Korean regime most wants: a guarantee against the twin nightmare of becoming East Germany and the Ceausescu family. Third, while the evidence is imperfect, it is prudent to assume that North Korea has two nuclear devices that can be delivered against both South Korean and Japanese targets. Fourth, the North Korean rulers are exactly who they say they are: Communists. This means — or have we already forgotten? — that they can be trusted to lie and deceive as required, and not care particularly about the welfare of their citizenry.

Certain policy implications flow from these assumptions. From the first two comes the U.S. determination not to let North Korea define the terms of the present tension. This, plus the need to wait for the results of the recent South Korean election, fully explains the administration’s restrained rhetoric. There is no need to invoke Iraq, or the administration’s supposed obtuseness, or presumed internal divisions, or anything else to account for it; to do so violates Occam’s Razor in spades.

From the third assumption flows the conclusion that the U.S. does not have any military option worth the risks of implementation. (Whether it was wise to say this out loud is another matter.) This does not mean, as some commentators have assumed, that the administration sees no differences between a North Korea stalled at two weapons and an active proliferation effort aimed at many more warheads and fissile exports. Nor does it mean that the administration is being inconsistent in the application of a preemption policy. Nor does it mean that the administration thinks that Iraq is more dangerous than North Korea, as if such judgments can even be made devoid of context. All such accusations miss the most basic point: that a rogue state’s passing the nuclear threshold is a big deal. It dramatically raises the stakes even as it constrains U.S. options. The example of North Korea thus makes the case for stopping Iraqi nuclearization stronger, lest we suddenly find ourselves with the paucity of options in the Persian Gulf that we now face in Korea.

From the fourth assumption comes the conclusion that even if the North Koreans were once again to swear off nuclear weapons in return for a U.S. pledge of non-aggression and normal relations, they could be trusted not to keep their word.

There are, however, two other basic points to remember. The first is that the North Koreans want a larger, more fearsome nuclear-weapons arsenal and will falsely promise anything to get it. They understood the advice of that Indian general at the end of the Gulf War, when he summed up its basic lesson as follows: Don’t tangle with the Americans unless you have nuclear weapons. This means, in turn, that standard diplomacy of the sort that produced the 1994 deal with North Korea cannot stop North Korean proliferation (and never could). At best it can slow it down, as the North Koreans tend to the episodic international shakedowns required to keep their country from imploding.

The second point is that the U.S. has no business recognizing the sovereignty of North Korea, an illegitimate Communist government utterly indifferent to the welfare of its own people. The longer we pretend that the North Korean regime can ultimately be conciliated or reformed, the longer its people will starve and suffer.


The U.S. finds itself in an unenviable situation: one in which it has no military options, yet normal diplomacy is futile. Diplomacy of the sort being pressed upon the U.S. by South Korea amounts to paying North Koreans for acting temporarily less scary until the next occasion for extortion. I have argued that the only way to solve the problem is to transcend it: to think not like a diplomat, who is paid to manage, but like a statesman, who is paid to transform basic circumstances. I proposed last October that the major powers — the U.S., Japan, Russia, and China — unite to condition aid to North Korea in such a way as ultimately to undermine North Korean sovereignty. This proposal stood at least a chance of getting at the real source of the problem, which is the nature of the North Korean regime; and it could provide benefits to all the major powers that they could not otherwise achieve for themselves. I also acknowledged its drawbacks: that North Korea would not easily allow itself to be managed into oblivion and might lash out (which might happen anyway); and that the degree of cooperation we required, especially from China, might not be forthcoming.

China has in fact proved recalcitrant, but not irremediably so. Indeed, the Chinese seem to appreciate the gravity of the present situation, and may still be prepared to cooperate with the U.S. if we persist in our efforts. The reason is that the Chinese may ultimately put their own national interest above habit. The key Chinese interest is that Korea not be nuclearized, because that presupposes a nuclear Japan. China also prefers, however, for perfectly understandable Realpolitik reasons, that Korea not be unified. China has been a free rider on U.S. policy and power for years to achieve both of these interests, and has never been forced to choose between the two. Now that choice is looming: China’s reliance on U.S. policy to prevent the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula is proving ill-founded. Meanwhile, as a result of North Korean proliferation, the U.S. has an interest in bringing about a unified non-nuclear Korea in which some redefined U.S. military presence underwrites the peninsula’s non-nuclear status. If forced to choose between a) a nuclear North Korea and b) a unified Korea under Seoul’s aegis whose non-nuclear status is underwritten by the U.S., China would be slightly crazy not to choose the latter. But it will not so choose until the choice becomes inevitable.

A secondary Chinese interest, often cited, is Beijing’s fear of chaos on its border. But unless one assumes that North Korea can be reformed successfully, a proposition for which there is no evidence, waiting will only make things worse from the Chinese perspective. The more time the North Korean regime has both to fail and to build nuclear weapons, the more likely its eventual collapse will be maximally calamitous. China’s policy today amounts to propping up an influence-resistant and disaster-prone regime — seething with refugees ready to pour across the Chinese border by the hundreds of thousands. Concert with the U.S., Japan, and Russia, on the other hand, would give China far more influence over what may happen in North Korea, and help to manage it. If the Chinese leadership sees its choices for what they really are, why would it choose a course of minimal influence and maximum ultimate peril?


And so we come to thoughts the administration may or may not have allowed itself to think, about how the U.S. can achieve the cooperation it needs to solve the North Korean problem. In other words, how can we bring other powers, particularly China, to the point of serious decisions that will lead them to join with the United States?

Charles Krauthammer recently suggested using the “Japan card” for this purpose — in other words, telling the Chinese that their failure to help us isolate North Korea would make the U.S. receptive to Japanese nuclear-weapons development. The U.S. need not say a word to Beijing about this, however; the Chinese understand the stakes better than we do. Besides, we have a far more dramatic option — the explanation of which requires a brief preface.

It made sense for the U.S. to risk war on the Korean peninsula between 1953 and the end of the Cold War, for Korea was bound up in a larger struggle. We could not opt out of any major theater in that struggle without the risk of losing all. But it no longer makes sense to run such risks. What larger stakes since 1991 have justified the costs and dangers of keeping 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, the overburdening of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, and the tensions caused to the U.S.-Japanese alliance? None that is readily apparent in the cold light of U.S. interests.

The division of Korea puts U.S. interests at risk more than it does those of any other major regional power (we have troops there; we — not China or Russia or Japan — face directly a nuclearizing adversary), and for the sake of the lowest stakes. Think about what the U.S. might suffer if war broke out in Korea, and about what we would gain from its not breaking out. We would suffer thousands of dead GIs, the probable ascription of responsibility for the razing of Seoul (and maybe Tokyo), and maybe accidental conflict with China. What do we gain from the status quo? Perpetual diplomatic heartburn with Japan and others, and the privilege of fruitlessly negotiating with Pyongyang.

In short, the end of the Cold War dramatically changed the balance of risks and rewards in U.S. Korea policy, and should have led us to adjust our stance. But U.S. policymakers conducted business as usual, only responding to North Korean threats and never themselves taking the lead to solve the underlying problem. We should have managed the transition to South Korea’s responsibility for its own security, while at the same time joining with other regional powers to limit North Korea’s trouble-making potential. Had we started early enough, before North Korea had nukes, we would have had far more robust military options to enforce a muscular diplomacy than we do today.

Better late than never, however; we still need to rethink the Korea problem down to its roots. When we do, we immediately see our other option: Announce our intention to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Korea. Lots of South Koreans would be delighted. More important, such an announcement would force China and the other parties to the problem to face reality.

South Koreans, having to defend themselves, will either see the illusions of their own policy or suffer the consequences of maintaining it. But it’s their country, and, frankly, their potential misfortune no longer matters to us as much as it did during the Cold War.

If North Korea becomes a six-or-more-weapon nuclear power, we will be far away, with deterrence reasonably intact, and with a decent if imperfect ability to prevent North Korea from exporting fissile materials and missiles. China, however, cannot relocate. If we profess an intention to leave, Beijing will then have to choose between a nuclear North Korea and Japan (and maybe South Korea, too) on its doorstep, or joining with the U.S. and others to manage the containment, and ultimately the withering away, of the North Korean state. Until it is faced with such a choice, Beijing will temporize and try to fob off the problem on Washington, hoping as before to free-ride on us for an outcome that benefits China more than it benefits the U.S. That’s reality, and the Chinese need to face it. We can help them do so.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The National Interest.


The Latest