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A Deadline for Mr. Kim?

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by Gordon Chang
Published on October 1st, 2004

“Well, I don’t think you give timelines to dictators and tyrants,” President Bush said this August to The New York Times. “I think it’s important for us to continue to lead coalitions that are firm and strong in sending messages to both the North Koreans and the Iranians.” The question we have to ask, after rounds of unproductive talks in Beijing, is: what are we saying to Kim Jong Il, the leader in Pyongyang?

According to intelligence estimates, the North already has enough plutonium for between seven to ten nuclear devices. Analysts argue about the size of this stockpile, but the exact number is really only a side question. The point is that Pyongyang has any of them. The fact that the country is a nuclear power means that Kim has violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and several other promises North Korea has made. So what are we going to do about it?

Many say that we should ignore Kim’s brazen tactics, and there is much to recommend this approach. One of the messages we need to send to the world is that blackmail, especially by sovereign governments, does not pay. Ignoring Kim would do that. Yet the drawback to this solution is that North Korea is already a nuclear power, and, as Vice President Cheney recently reminded us, time is not on our side. By merely hanging onto its bombs, Pyongyang prevails.

As long as North Korea possesses the ultimate weapon, America is at risk. Perched atop his platform shoes, the diminutive Kim threatens to sell fissile material and nuclear weapons. Although there are reasons to believe he will not risk his regime by commercializing his plutonium, we can never be sure. If anything, we know from painful experience that he does not think like we do.

Yet there is a more important reason to stop Kim now. Iraq was not just about Iraq, and Korea is not just about Korea. Korea is about Iran and all the other countries wanting to build nuclear weapons. How we deal with Kim determines whether the United States can stop proliferation of the world’s most destructive weaponry. So far, Kim has conclusively proven that even small and economically failing regimes can defy the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

The need to do something is clear. The course of action, however, is not.

Pundits call the North Korean situation “intractable” and “insoluble,” yet that’s not exactly true. America can fix the problem on its own. With several quick blows, we can, with superior military force, remove Kim Jong Il from power and capture his arsenal. It would be not regime change but regime obliteration. We also might be able to bring down Kim’s government with a less drastic approach. David Frum and Richard Perle, for example, urge a “comprehensive air and naval blockade.”

A quick solution, though, is apparently off the table. There’s a “no more war in ‘04” policy in Washington, according to Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. At least through the national elections later this year American policy makers will not use military force. That means a tacit acceptance of the North Korean regime.

Moreover, that acceptance may be more than just temporary. Neither America ally in Northeast Asia is ready for military conflict. South Korea is dead set against any solution that could endanger the North Korean regime. Japan, though more in Washington’s camp, also wants a negotiated solution. North Korea’s buddy China works constantly to prop up Pyongyang, as does Russia to a lesser extent. From America’s standpoint, the ongoing six-party talks could turn into a mugging. We worked hard to set up a multilateral format that will essentially constrain us in the future. We cannot control what other nations think, but we should not have pushed for a format that makes their voices count.

The world’s most powerful power constrained? America, under pressure from the other participants in the talks, has already signaled that it is willing to provide some type of security assurance for Pyongyang. For better or worse and like it or not, we have essentially forced ourselves into an engagement strategy with Kim’s Any negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis, in effect, will result in both additional aid to the North and Pyongyang’s emergence from its state of semi-isolation. We had therefore better think fast about how we deal with North Korea on a long-term basis.

And we shouldn’t be surprised about where we’re ending up. Engagement, after all, has become an essential part of the world’s geopolitical religion, the accepted solution for dealing with unlikable regimes. We engage communist China, Vietnam and, on the days we remember it exists, Laos. It’s true that we work to contain Cuba, but that policy has few defenders outside older generations of exiles in Miami. In just a few years we will be engaging Cuba as well, especially if someone figures out how to become President without Florida.

Comforted by memories of “victory” in the Cold War, we just assume that authoritarian governments don’t stand a chance in the face of free markets and open political systems. History has already ended. Francis Fukuyama has told us so, and that’s good enough for many of us. Because we have apparently arrived at this happy state of world affairs, we believe Kim Jong Il has no choice but to move totalitarian North Korea in the direction we would like.

Many say that the process has already started. In the last half decade the enigmatic North Korean leader had appeared to push his country in a new direction. There was, of course, the historic June 2000 summit with Kim Dae-jung, then South Korea’s president. Since then the North Korean Kim sponsored the July 2002 price and wage reforms and made the surprising admission, during his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2002, that the North had abducted Japanese residents. The best explanation of events is that Kim Jong Il was trying a different tack toward national development.

In short, Kim was willing to be engaged by the outside world. Unfortunately, his concept of engagement was receiving large quantities of no-strings-attached aid. He expected something on the order of US$10 billion from Japan as a form of disguised reparations for World War II. Koizumi’s initiative might have separated Japan from the United States as far as North Korea was concerned: for a moment the old foes looked as if they might reach an accommodation. To the surprise of not only the North Korean leader but also the Japanese prime minister, the citizens of Japan put a quick end to any sort of rapprochement. Outrage over the abductions to this day blocks a repair of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

It is probably no accident that, having failed to coax buckets of cash out of Koizumi, Kim Jong Il tried tougher tactics against the United States in the following month by authorizing the disclosure of the uranium-based nuclear weapons program to visiting Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. Since that admission, North Korean strategy has been to obtain assistance for some sort of concession relating to its nukes.

Aid is not necessarily the best form of engagement. As is evident from the past few years, international assistance maintains the lifestyle to which the Pyongyang regime has become accustomed. We complain about diversion of food assistance to the military, but that is essentially beside the point. Food aid of any kind is life support for the anemic North Korean economy. Kim Jong Il devotes his resources to building terrifying weapons and needs other governments to feed his people. The food we give, whether diverted or not, just allows Kim to maintain his bomb-building programs. We don’t supply fissile material to Pyongyang. So why are we providing humanitarian assistance?

Maybe because we don’t want to be accused of playing politics with food. A better reason for supplying assistance is because we want to separate the North Korean people from their leadership. If that is our goal, we need to insist on complete monitoring of aid distribution, the type we require for all other recipient nations.

For reasons not entirely clear, we are on the verge of engaging Kim. Should we ever do so, we need to be realistic. Engagement, even under the best of circumstances, takes decades to work. In the beginning, this approach usually strengthens reprehensible governments. It’s only over time that it begins to weaken their grip.

How does engagement work in practice? China today is much different than the nation we saw 25 years ago when Deng Xiaoping launched the reform era. In many ways it has evolved, but the Chinese Communist Party is still stuck in the old ways of doing things. The successors of Mao Zedong have sought to create a more modern society, but they have not changed the Maoist political system where the Party dictates and the people are supposed to follow. Today the Chinese people are thinking for themselves. Engagement has changed them, but it has changed their leaders little. The People's Republic of China, unfortunately, is still a hardline state.

Should we choose the path of engagement, we can expect the same long process of evolution in North Korea. Engagement appeals to our better instincts, and we should by all means work for the best. Yet we must remember that our response to Pyongyang will be watched by every nation that wants the bomb. Engagement is no substitute for rolling back the North Korean nuclear program, something that needs to happen now.

So should we be giving Kim a timeline? The better answer to this question is yes: we can—and should—give deadlines to dictators. Because as much as we would like to see an improvement in the North Korean regime, we have only a short time to solve the proliferation problem. Time, above all else, is the issue with North Korea.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Showdown of the Century: North Korea Takes on the World, which will be published by Random House late next year, and The Coming Collapse of China.

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