Don’t Forget About North Korea

With most of the world focusing on the Danish cartoon controversy, the upset victory by Hamas, and Iran’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, North Korea’s celebration of the 64th birthday of its “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, last week went largely unnoticed. But although many think that the North Korea crisis has passed because all six parties announced last September that they had reached a preliminary agreement, the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula is far from settled. No progress has been made in carrying out the agreement, and North Korea has actually pulled out of the talks, demanding that the US end its financial sanctions against alleged North Korean counterfeiting operations as a condition for a return to negotiation.

For the United States and its allies, it is time to reevaluate their North Korea strategy if they seriously wish to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. The current approach has yielded little progress and has only given the North Koreans more time and more negotiation leverage. Instead, the US must realize that multilateral venues are not enough; to bring a peaceful solution, the Bush administration needs to be the principal actor in dealing with Kim Jong Il and take an active role uniting the other parties under common goals and tactics. Anything short of vigorous leadership will render the 2005 tentative agreement as impotent and ineffective as the 1994 Agreed Framework, breathing more life into a regime that has long outlasted its stay.

To begin with, the United States must stop pretending that China holds tremendous leverage over its neighbor. The belief that the US can outsource the job of policing North Korea to China has lulled the Bush administration into thinking that it need not take proactive measures. China actually holds only limited sway over the independent-minded Kim Jong Il. The loss of Soviet support and China’s normalization with South Korea in the early 90s has transformed the Chinese-North Korean relationship into one built more on necessity and convenience than allegiance and trust. In fact, China fears pressuring North Korea and causing the collapse of the Kim regime, which would leave China responsible for dealing with a failed state on its border and the humanitarian disaster that would entail.

Furthermore, China already has done much by hosting the recent six party talks and keeping the group at the table. China’s actions have exceeded expectations, and all parties have been generous with praise. Playing up China’s supposed influence only inflates China’s power vis-à-vis the United States, as Beijing can threaten to encourage Pyongyang with its supposed “influence” in order to have Washington back down on other security issues, like Taiwan. China has already done its part to bring the talks together; now the United States must push to conclude it.

In order to strengthen its hand against North Korea, the US needs to quickly formulate a serious proposal that draws together most of the other parties at the negotiation table. Pyongyang has throughout the process skillfully played each of the six parties off another, encouraging Korean solidarity with South Korea and even playing up old historic ties with China. Only Japan has resisted North Korean overtures and remained solidly behind US efforts. Russia, China, and South Korea have been plodding along a middle path that has allowed North Korea more wiggle room in evading its responsibilities and promises. Washington can bring Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow to its side by stressing its commitment to the process and bringing additional issues to the table that would relieve their concerns over future Korean reunification and the potential for a refugee crisis.

Such a plan would require the Bush administration to end once and for all its paralyzing schizophrenia on the North Korean issue. Competing factions within the Bush administration have severely hampered the US’s position, and the administration has failed to even produce a comprehensive plan until the summer of 2004. Delusional hardliners refuse to even approach the problem and instead simply hope that the regime will spontaneously collapse. Their tough talk may give the appearance of strength, but it accomplishes little.

Although the United States should not rule out a regime change unless North Korea demonstrates concrete evidence of dismantling its nuclear weapons, the tactic of isolation is what led North Korea to kick out inspectors and restart its nuclear facilities in the first place. By making a determined effort at the negotiating table, the United States can, with the support of its allies, finally avoid sliding back into the preliminary rounds of negotiation, in which the North Koreans simply play shell games while continuing to develop nuclear weapons. And if these genuine efforts should fail, the US would then have a legitimate reason to reconsider regime change.

Stopping nuclear proliferation and ending the threat rogue states pose cannot be accomplished by allowing other nations to take the lead or by exacerbating the situation through hard-line isolation of nations that actually seek dialogue. The longer the US waits, the more nuclear weapons North Korea can build and the more instable the situation will become. Although the United States faces a whole host of pressing issues, the president and Congress should not forget the threat posed by armed North Korea. For Kim Jong Il’s next birthday, the US should send him an unsolicited birthday present in the form of a brief memo: Comply with the negotiated terms or face consequences.