Jonah, I think the President is correct in saying that North Korea’s nuclear break-out is “unacceptable” because that is our negotiating posture in these pointless negotiations, and that is really the most he can say. I wouldn’t characterize it is as a redline because no consequences were specified or even implied for violating it.
We simply don’t have a military option — and never did after Clinton traded it in for the good offices of Jimmy Carter in 1994. People forget that by the end of the Clinton administration, we already thought Kim Jong-Il had at least a few nukes. When we discovered in 2002 that they had a secret uranium process on top of the plutonium one, it vastly increased our suspicions. Now they can in theory incinerate Tokyo, and we find ourselves in the very situation Bush was thinking of when he said a few years back that America has to solve problems early, “before our options become desperate.” So we don’t have a stick to beat them with.
And North Korea isn’t interested in carrots. That is what the Agreed Framework stands for: It was an agreement to defer agreement on the two most important U.S. demands (anytime, anywhere inspections and a dismantling of plutonium reprocessing) in exchange for all the carrots in the galaxy, including — from Japan alone — an offer of $10 billion a year in aid and diplomatic recognition. North Korea’s aggregate imports from the outside world at that time did not exceed $300 million a year. But Kim rejected the offer, even though the famine that would eventually take 3 million lives had already begun. Why? Because extortion is both more reliable and more dignified than begging for charity. He thinks he can get $10 billion from the Japanese without giving up his nukes, by threatening to use them once he has them.
What do you do when you’re out of options and negotiations are pointless? You keep negotiating pointlessly. I don’t think ambiguity costs much prestige. What is terrible is that Iran and other rogue states around the world saw what we did in 1994 and have drawn their conclusions from the fact that when faced with the choice between military confrontation and a rogue state nuclear break-out, America will ultimately convince itself to live with the latter. Historians will blame America and its allies — not rogue states — for the collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
What’s important now is to shape the choices facing North Korea so that it starts heading towards internal reforms. Communism is unreformable, as Lech Walesa used to say, so any reforms at all would be a huge step towards the probably inevitable democratization and denuclearization of the north.