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U.S. Policy Toward a Nuclear North Korea

Current U.S. policy toward North Korea is one of political alienation and economic sanctions, coupled with harsh rhetoric and military intimidation. But has this policy worked?

Monti Narayan Datta

Issue #67, April 2004

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
— Albert Einstein

If Einstein's words are true, then sometime in the near or distant future we may very well perish from the hellfire of an atomic holocaust, and our descendants will haunt a barren world entombed in a nuclear winter of discontent. Surely, no one wants this prophecy to come true, but in recent years a host of political and economic upheavals have raised the threat level of a nuclear attack against the United States, the preemption of which could inadvertently set off a global cataclysm. Whereas in 1989 the world shifted neatly along the well-established geopolitical fault-lines of Soviet and non-Soviet states, and the policy makers of the day maneuvered under the tacit agreement that the use of nuclear weapons would be sheer suicide, the world today teeters upon the unipolar dominance of the United States and a handful of vehemently anti-American state and non-state actors, many of which are untested, extremely unpredictable, and in closer proximity to possessing nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong-Il trading card - infinitejest.orgAmong these threats to U.S. national security perhaps the most pressing is North Korea-one of the last strongholds of communist ideology, led under the cult-like leader, Kim Jong Il. Two years ago, in his State of the Union address, President Bush rebuked North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, proclaiming "states like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger." Moreover, he declared that it is in America's interests to strike first against such threats, lest be caught off-guard yet again and suffer the harrowing consequences of a day like September 11. President Bush had thrown down the gauntlet and cast North Korea as a rogue state in need of correction.

If anyone had thought this "Bush Doctrine" was mere rhetoric, the swift and decisive war in Iraq has shown otherwise, speaking volumes about President Bush's resoluteness to righteously purge the world of such "evil". Expeditiously, the United States has supplanted the Iraqi regime with a facsimile of its own Western-style democracy. U.S. forces have captured Saddam Hussein and killed his two sons, ensuring the decapitation of the previous Iraqi power structure. Now with the war gradually turning from a military campaign to one of post-war reconstruction, the United States still has two other members of the "axis of evil" with which to reckon: Iran and North Korea.

Compared to Iran, North Korea has recently threatened to be the more renegade state-defying international norms such as withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last year and expelling United Nations weapons inspectors from its nuclear reactor facility in Pyongyang. Although North Korea has yet to officially test a nuclear weapon, most security experts agree that Pyongyang has at least enough fissile material to construct a handful of simple nuclear bombs which it could launch using the Taepo-dong missile against South Korea, Japan, or perhaps even Hawaii, Alaska, or San Francisco. With one well-placed strike, the North Korean regime could conceivably destroy a major American city. Worse yet, given the aggressive tenor of the Bush Doctrine, a preemptive strike against North Korea could corner an already isolated Kim Jong Il and push him to retaliate with the remainder of his forces, conventional and otherwise, which could wreak devastation on Japan, South Korea, the U.S. or all of the above.

Given this precarious situation we may already have one foot in the grave. On the one hand, we have a U.S President hell-bent on purging the world of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction (real or imagined), and on the other hand, we have an ultra-reclusive North Korean leader about whom the world knows virtually nothing except that he defies international norms. Clearly, there are parallels between North Korea and Iraq, between Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. With the war in Iraq coming to a close, we must pause to ask, what is the best U.S. policy toward a nuclear North Korea?

For the past fifty years the United States has adhered to a strict policy of military, economic and political coercion toward North Korea. Militarily, the U.S. has maintained 40,000 American troops in South Korea, traditionally along the Demilitarized Zone — the neutral zone that exists along the 38th parallel between North and South Korea. Economically, the U.S. has long imposed a trade embargo upon North Korea, and except for the occasional humanitarian relief effort, American products do not reach North Korean ports. Little if any commerce crosses the Pacific between North Korea and the U.S. Politically, the U.S. has never recognized the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, nor has it received a North Korean head of state. There has never been an American embassy in Pyongyang, nor has there ever been a North Korean embassy in Washington, DC. Indeed, the political situation is so harried that whenever North Korean senior officials want to communicate messages to the Bush Administration, they do so through back channels such as meeting informally with New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who then travels to the White House and gives President Bush their message.

Thus the current U.S. policy toward North Korea is one of political alienation and economic sanctions, coupled with harsh rhetoric and military intimidation. But has this policy worked?

By economically isolating North Korea, the United States has blocked access to its wealthy commercial markets, and it has also encouraged America's allies to do the same. In recent years this situation has placed tremendous pressure on the North Korean economy to acquire its goods from somewhere. Prior to 1989, North Korea heavily relied on Russia and China for economic aid, but since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea has received little to no assistance. Indeed, North Korea's economy has for over a decade verged on economic collapse. Given that North Korea currently spends roughly one-quarter of its GNP on military goods amidst a starving citizenry, it seems that the North Korean infrastructure cannot sustain itself and survive. One could reason that with just a bit more isolation, as U.S. policy makers have advocated, the North Korean regime will eventually implode and have no choice but to comply with the United States and permanently dismantle its nuclear reactor facilities, whether or not those facilities have a legitimate purpose for generating electricity for the welfare of the North Korean people. Moreover, given the recent impressive demonstration of the American use of force in Iraq, perhaps Kim Jong Il is considering his fate may not be too different than Saddam Hussein's. Could it be that current U.S. policy is working in North Korea?

Clearly, the Bush Doctrine has teeth, and can bite quite hard if it so chooses. If the U.S. maintains its current hard-line policy toward North Korea, then the Bush Doctrine could very well be successful. But given the differences between Iraq and North Korea, it would behoove the Bush Administration to consider North Korea in a different light, for at least two key reasons:

  1. North Korea almost certainly possesses weapons of mass destruction-including nuclear weapons. If Kim Jong Il so chose, he could unleash a devastating attack upon an American ally or America itself. This situation compares differently with the case of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was never in possession of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. invaded Iraq with the comfort of knowing a nuclear exchange would not occur. If the U.S. were to preemptively attack North Korea, however, it would be with the uncertainty to triggering a nuclear exchange, or worse yet, a limited-scale nuclear war.
  2. If the U.S. maintains its current hard-line trade embargo, then it will continue to force North Korea into economic collapse, but this tactic could be at the expense of forcing the North Korean regime to act under drastic measures, such as selling its weapons of mass destruction to other anti-American states for a handsome profit. By tightening the economic noose, the U.S. may be encouraging North Korea to sell its weapons technologies to the highest bidder.

As mentioned earlier, President Bush has labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil," implying that North Korea is an evil regime that somehow needs to be purged of its evilness. Although such rhetoric is persuasive to some extent in the context of an apprehensive and understandably angry post 9-11 American public, I believe it is fundamentally flawed -such language generates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If President Bush believes, or constructs that North Korea is "evil," then he will only see and induce an "evil" relationship, thus encouraging political, economic and military policies based on a lack of trust, similar to the prisoner's dilemma. In the prisoner's dilemma, two criminals have been caught, and are held in separate rooms by the police, who makes each prisoner a deal. Since both prisoners do not trust one another, they invariably opt for the worst strategy of defection, thus ensuring each receives the greatest amount of mutual punishment. In the world of nuclear weapons, mutual punishment could mean mutual annihilation via nuclear weapons.

In a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Barbara Boxer echoed the negative repercussions of espousing President Bush's harsh rhetoric against the "axis of evil":

"You know about North Korea's history-isolation, a little paranoia, mistrustful, and the rest. And you're sitting in North Korea, and the president of the only superpower in the world lists three countries, and you're the second one on the list, and the first one is about to be invaded ... Now he's sitting there, and we know he's already isolated, is — he's got horrible economic problems and the rest. And he's thinking, 'I'm probably next.'"

Senator Boxer presents a vivid and striking interpretation of how Kim Jong Il might have interpreted President Bush's bellicose remarks. With Kim Jong Il possibly thinking that the U.S. will soon demolish his regime, just as the U.S. has neatly disposed of Saddam Hussein's regime, how can the U.S. ever expect North Korea to come to the table of diplomacy and cooperate? To transform its adversarial relationship into one of camaraderie, Washington must take more earnest steps toward engaging Pyongyang as an equal in the international community. If Washington could offer Pyongyang more reassurances that security needs would be met, then North Korea might stop playing its "nuclear card" and instead focus more on rebuilding its economy and infrastructure. Surely Kim Jong Il would want to see his country become more wealthy and self-sufficient, a key element of the North Korean cultural ideology of juche, or self-reliance. If Washington could take the moral high ground and approach North Korea in a spirit of reconciliation and trust then Pyongyang might favorably respond. Indeed, as Arnold Wolfers argues, "there are many occasions when disputes can be settled peacefully and when enmity can be eliminated or avoided, provided one side at least has enough courage, imagination and initiative. Sometimes a spirit of conciliation or even of generosity can do wonders in evoking a ready and sincere response." North Korea only wants to be a strong, stable country, not starving and weak as it is now. Instead of continuing to follow a fifty-year old policy of mutual mistrust, it is time for the United States to take the higher ground and give North Korea the benefit of the doubt.

To socially transform the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, I believe that the U.S. — and more specifically the George W. Bush Administration — should articulate confidence building measures.

First, show North Korea diplomatic courtesy, respect, and recognition. For example, the U.S. should directly engage North Korea by formally establishing full diplomatic relations. An American embassy should be established in Pyongyang, and a North Korean embassy should be opened in Washington, DC. President Bush should invite North Korean VIPs to the White House for a state dinner. Moreover, for the time being, Washington should stop proposing multilateral talks with Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Moscow and instead directly engage Pyongyang in a series of high-level bilateral talks. Although it is true that North Korea threatens all of these parties in the Pacific, it would be to the advantage of the United States to directly confront North Korea since it is the United States that has the most adversarial relationship. After all, it is the U.S. that has 37,000 troops stationed along the DMZ. It is the U.S. that has severed its economic ties with North Korea (Japan, South Korea, China and Russia are all major trading partners of North Korea). It is the United States that has labeled North Korea as part of an "axis of evil." If Washington continues to hide behind the wall of multilateral talks then it will never have any significant, direct contact with Pyongyang. President Bush should send Colin Powell — as a very high-level U.S. government representative — to meet with Kim Jong Il and offer a formal peace treaty, assuring the North Korean regime in the eyes of the world that Washington will never initiate a first-strike against Pyongyang. The treaty should be signed under full media attention in the White House Rose Garden. In exchange for this diplomatic courtesy, respect and recognition, I believe North Korea would be more likely to offer to dismantle its nuclear weapons program with the help of the United Nations.

What would the United States have to lose in normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea? The U.S. could avoid the devastating nuclear holocaust that would ensue if North Korea continues to feel threatened or isolated and decides to retaliate against an invasion/regime change. What North Korean diplomat would not want to be respectfully, properly received by the White House? After all, a large part of East Asian culture has to deal with the concept of "saving face," which means that a leader or an official has to look as if he is being well taken care of, or catered to, in order for someone to get him do to what is needed. There has been enough arm-twisting between Washington and Pyongyang, and now is the time for hand shaking.

Second, engage economically with North Korea and gain access to the populace. The U.S. must renegotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework in good faith and finally deliver on its promise of normalizing economic trade and finishing the construction of the two light water reactors it had originally promised North Korean over ten years ago under the Clinton Administration. Washington should pursue an aggressive strategy with Pyongyang to allow American corporations to start investing in business ventures with North Korea. With an infusion of economic support, America will be able to have a significant amount of influence over North Korea in terms of soft power, such as the media and popular culture. Through the venue of economic engagement, America will be able to wield a tremendous amount of influence over the thoughts and opinions and attitudes of North Koreans who come to frequent quintessential American institutions such as McDonalds and who come to watch popular movies like "Spider-Man." Ultimately, soft power is more effective than hard power.

Third, make a show of trust and respect for the self-determination of both Koreas. The U.S. should withdraw all of its troops from the Korean peninsula, just as the Carter Administration proposed twenty-five years ago. While American troops will continue to be stationed nearby in Japan, it should be made abundantly clear to Pyongyang that Washington will pursue a policy of noninterference between North and South Korea, which should help speed up the reunification process. With Washington out of the equation, the two Koreas can finally negotiate without intrusion from the outside community.

Clearly these are drastic proposals that I would not expect President Bush to initially accept. However, Washington must stop looking at the short term and set its sights on the long run. We have a "war on terrorism" because the U.S. has made so many enemies throughout the world. If the U.S. continues to cultivate relationships based on empty promises (the 1994 Agreed Framework), harsh language (President Bush's "axis of evil" speech), and lack of diplomacy (President Bush's hard-line "no negotiation" approach and refusal to engage in direct talks with North Korea until it disarms), then Washington will continue to sow the seeds of doubt, mistrust, and enmity. The U.S. can only permanently and effectively disarm the North Korean nuclear threat through a policy of trust and a mutually beneficial game of reciprocity.

Monti Narayan Datta is a graduate student in the department of political science at U.C. Davis.

Credit: Kim Jong-Il trading card from The Infinite Jest.

Copyright © 2004 by Monti Narayan Datta. All rights reserved.