Democrats have been quick to blame North Korea’s latest provocation on the Bush administration. It supposedly hasn’t been willing enough to talk to Pyongyang. But over the last decade we have talked to North Korea in every manner possible.
The Clinton administration engaged in bilateral talks, resulting in the Agreed Framework that North Korea began cheating on immediately. After the Bush administration found North Korea out, it hoped to avoid the Clinton administration’s mistake of cutting a deal North Korea had no intention of honoring. To this end, it initiated multilateral negotiations — the so-called six-party talks — that included North Korea’s influential neighbors (although the talks also included bilateral meetings between the U.S. and the North). These too have failed. North Korea has absented itself from them this year in protest of our crackdown on its counterfeiting operations. Last year, it committed at the talks to giving up its nukes, a commitment that no one has heard anything of since. Its threats during other rounds of the talks to test nukes and sell them abroad appear to have been much more sincere.
The very idea of negotiations has an oversized place in our political debate. Liberals consider them a good in and of themselves, while some conservatives treat them as a positive evil. They are neither. Their desirability depends on context. We can indeed negotiate profitably with some of our enemies, as Reagan proved during the end of the Cold War (only after, it is worth noting, he had secured for the U.S. a decisive strategic upper hand with the arms buildup of the 1980s). But negotiations make no sense if your negotiating partner is using them only as delaying tactic, or as a way to demonstrate your weakness, or as a means to get concessions that it will pocket while never living up to its promises. North Korea arguably represents a trifecta.
We should end the six-party talks immediately and begin to pressure North Korea on every possible front in order to convince it that its attempts at nuclear blackmail will backfire. China holds the key, since North Korea is so dependent on it. Until now, Beijing has given no sign that it is serious about squeezing North Korea. But on Monday neither China — irked that Pyongyang had ignored its warning not to test — nor its partner in obstruction, Russia, was resisting a U.S. push for a tough U.N. Security Council resolution. Such a resolution would come under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which authorizes coercive measures to deal with threats to international peace and security. It would seek to cut off North Korea from the sources of support for its weapons programs and other illicit activities.
Even if there isn’t a strong resolution (we wouldn’t be surprised if China pulls up short), we can act in concert with our allies. We should urge other countries to do more to combat North Korea’s illegal sources of revenue — counterfeiting, WMD proliferation, and narcotics trafficking. We should ratchet up the Proliferation Security Initiative, working with Japan (which has impressive naval capabilities) and Taiwan to interdict North Korean shipping. It has to be made plain that North Korea will be wiped from the earth should it ever use its nukes, and we should enhance our deterrent by rotating nuclear assets into the region. Missile-defense technology should be made available to our allies, and we cannot allow any daylight between ourselves and our most important ally in the region, Japan, which is angered and frightened by the North’s bellicosity and needs to begin to rearm.
We should use our words carefully. We should avoid grandiose promises, but explain how we intend to punish and contain Pyongyang, and then follow through on each and every step. The rest of the world is watching, most importantly Iran. It must not be in doubt that we mean what we say, and that the calculation behind North Korea’s test is a blunder: Provocations will gain rogue states nothing but more isolation and pain.