New Year’s is a time for top-ten lists, and recently North Korea’s “Radio Voice of National Salvation” gave out its list of the ten-most-significant events of 2002. You would think that the current controversy over the DPRK’s nuclear program would rank high on the list. Of course the most-significant event was the birthday of “the sun of the 21st century,” North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. The fifth-most important was naturally the “100,000-strong mass gymnastic and artistic performance Arirang, presented from April to August, creating a great sensation.” But to get to the reactivation of the Yongbyon nuclear-power plant you’d have to go all the way to the bottom of the list, right after the Pyongyang Beauty Cheering Group attending the 14th Asian Games, “raising ‘Pyongyang Wind’” (defined as “the hot wind of the great man”; it probably loses something in the translation).
It is no coincidence that North Korea has timed this crisis a.k.a. “subject of great concern” to coincide with an imminent war between the Allies and Iraq. Not only is the United States preoccupied with the building Middle East conflict, but the DPRK is attempting to make the point that it will not be treated in the same manner as its fellow charter member of the axis of evil. In addition, South Korea is transitioning to a new government, and it is a useful exercise to foment a crisis to test the mettle of the new guys. The pattern is similar to the way that China makes rumbling noises every time the Taiwanese go to the polls.
The most-interesting aspect of the diplomacy so far is that, despite the good intentions of neighbors like China and South Korea, Pyongyang is demanding that this issue be settled bilaterally with the U.S. This is not due to Kim Jong-Il’s respect for President Bush’s alleged unilateralism. Rather, the North does not want to initiate a process that could potentially compromise its sovereignty. Recent experience in Iraq has shown that allowing the U.N. to get involved in arms control can lead to situations far more expansive and troubling. The North Koreans have come to view the U.N. as a mechanism (in their view, a tool of U.S. hegemony) whereby the international community whittles away the sovereignty of out-of-favor states until they reach the status of Iraq — humiliated, overrun with inspectors, bounded by no-fly zones, and about to be subjected to an internationally sanctioned regime change. Expelling the IAEA inspectors was another symptom of this mindset. The last thing the North Koreans want at this stage is a multilateral nuclear-disarmament deal, especially one brokered by the U.N., and enforced by the U.S. under international sanction.
Since October, when information on North Korea’s illegal nuclear program became public, Pyongyang has insisted that the U.S. agree to a non-aggression pact as a precondition for negotiations. We have done this before; in 1993, faced with North Korean threats to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the U.S. and the DPRK issued a joint statement that “the United States will not threaten North Korea with nuclear weapons and will respect North Korea’s sovereignty.” It seemed harmless at the time, and set the stage for the 1994 agreement that the DPRK first violated and is now in the process of abrogating. Demanding a non-aggression pact strikes one as a quaint throwback to pre-Cold War diplomacy. One of the last such deals with major impact was the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact of August 1939 that paved the way for the German invasion of Poland, and gave Stalin some breathing space before Hitler turned his attention back to the east. As it turned out, Stalin did not get as much time as he bargained for, mostly due to the unexpected collapse of French defenses in 1940. History is ironic that way.
Like Stalin, Kim is seeking to buy time to continue to pursue a nuclear buildup. A bilateral non-aggression pact would make it politically more difficult for the United States to rally a multilateral response later, when North Korea has a fully functional arsenal. It would also amount to a renunciation of the emerging U.S. doctrine of preemption, which North Korea sees as a direct threat to its sovereignty. (It is, but total states should have no right to be sovereign in the first place.) By dogmatically sticking to the bilateral approach, and ejecting the IAEA inspectors and shutting down all monitoring equipment, the DPRK has unnecessarily alarmed the international community, to the benefit of the United States. It will be much easier to build an international coalition to deal with this problem — many countries are already calling for a U.S.-led collective response. North Korea’s neighbors, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan, not only have obvious parochial concerns, but they are also loathe to let the United States set the terms of resolution of the crisis, even with North Korean complicity, or insistence. South Korea is particularly alarmed that the North is couching the issue in terms of the security of the Korean peninsula per se, cutting the South out of the deal and making the DPRK the implicit senior partner. A separate U.S.-DPRK deal without South Korean input would be a significant slap.
As matter stands, the U.S. is in the enviable position of being able to ignore North Korean calls to act unilaterally, and instead find the best way to manage the cooperation of an eager international community. Nor is the DPRK dealing this time with an administration that is eager to rush to sign agreements without more firm guarantees of their implementation. In that respect, the U.S. should take its time. Yet, this is why the North is moving with alarming speed towards augmenting its nuclear capability. It would be a mistake to see this as a bluff on the part of the North Koreans. Nothing in their recent history or current rhetoric suggests that Pyongyang is at all reticent about going ahead with its plans. North Korea has been actively and openly developing ballistic-missile technology, and does nothing to dispel the belief that it possesses nuclear warheads, or, as it claimed last October, “something even more powerful than that.”
Meanwhile the crisis has given the president’s critics something new to carp on. Last month’s “Bin Laden before Iraq” line has now given way to “Korea First.” When you put Iraq and North Korea side by the side, the case can be superficially compelling. After all, U.N. inspectors are searching in vain for Iraqi WMDs, and the DPRK practically admits having them. Iraq has no functioning reactors, North Korea is firing theirs up. Iraq has admitted and cooperated with international inspectors, the DPRK gave them the boot. Saddam has a repressive Arab Socialist regime, Kim runs a nightmarish Stalinist totalitarian system. Iraq has a relatively weak army in poor morale; North Korea has 10 million fanatics under arms, the largest standing land army in the world. Iraq is restricted by no-fly zones, Korea is not. Saddam has gassed thousands of Iraqis at various points in his rule; Kim is starving millions every year to have the resources he needs to support his war machine. (Note: If millions are dying, where are the bodies? Can we get satellite images of mass graves? Are they being burned in crematoria? There’s an image.) North Korea is bad news, no question about it. All other things being equal, it should be getting more attention. But all things are not equal. The Middle East is much more important to U.S. national interests than the Korean peninsula, primarily because it is the source of much of the world’s energy supplies. It is also a region that has lately shown a propensity to export its extremism to undermine U.S. allies and attack the homeland. North Korean exports, more tangible things like missile technology, can be more easily interdicted. Furthermore, the Iraq issue has been developing for a year (or a dozen). The Allies cannot turn on a dime and deal with North Korea exclusively, then expect to be able to go back to pick up where they left off with Saddam.
A critical inequality is the military equation. North Korea would be a much tougher adversary than Iraq even if it only had conventional forces. The probable presence of nuclear weapons make the situation even more difficult. Unfortunately, deterrence works in this situation as in any other match-up between nuclear states. Concerted action on the part of the United States without the certainty that North Korean nuclear weapons could be destroyed or neutralized severely alters the risk calculus. Thus the critics who say we should go after North Korea because it is strong have it completely backwards — we should deal with Saddam first because for the moment he is weak. We have been preparing for that conflict. Get it done while we can.
Saddam must be kicking himself. His nuclear-weapons program was making great strides through the 1980s, but was interrupted by Desert Storm and its aftermath. Had he only waited he could have kept the West at bay. Now he probably gets it: First acquire the nukes, then go on a regional rampage. Note to self: Call Pyongyang.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.