Carry a Big Carrot
The high cost of Clintonian fecklessness toward North Korea.
Thursday, October 17, 2002 9:22 a.m. EDT
(Editor's note: This editorial originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 30, 1993. Yesterday the Bush administration said North Korea has acknowledged that it has continued to pursue nuclear weapons, in violation of an agreement it signed with the Clinton administration in 1994.)
In the annals of muscular diplomacy, the U.S. has had "carry a big stick" (Teddy Roosevelt), "a day that will live in infamy" (FDR) and "this will not stand" (George Bush). Regarding the imminent danger of a North Korean nuclear weapon, President Clinton is now offering the rather less memorable "thorough and broad approach."
That at least is how the Clinton team is advertising its latest "new" policy toward the renegade regime in Pyongyang, which last March reneged on a 1991 pledge to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities. Just about everyone who's serious assumes the North Koreans are building a bomb, with ominous implications for U.S. interests in Asia. For eight months the North has rejected American coaxing and diplomatic carrots. Yet instead of getting tougher, Mr. Clinton's "new" policy is to beat the North with an even bigger carrot.
U.S. officials are saying that if only the North will budge on inspections, the U.S. and its allies will start treating it like any other country. Investment would flow and the U.S. would recognize the government of Kim Il Sung, which is the same regime that began the Korean War 40 years ago by invading the South. Mr. Clinton's big carrot even includes an offer to stop "Team Spirit," the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise.
The North Koreans must be pleased. If they'd merely lived by their 1991 commitment, they'd still be an isolated regime beset by economic woes. But having stiffed the world and threatened U.S. allies, they may be rewarded with trade, aid and the global respect they've coveted for decades. For breaking all of the rules against proliferating weapons, Kim Il Sung gets treated as a statesman we can do business with. Saddam Hussein must be thinking that if only he'd had a nuclear weapon, he might still be in Kuwait. And we can all guess the lessons that Iran's mullahs are drawing from this.
The big Clinton carrot is all the more puzzling because it isn't likely to achieve what it wants in Korea. Over the weekend the North responded with its typical bluster, but don't be surprised if it soon tries to take yes for an answer. It may even allow inspections of its Yongbyan nuclear facility. But that shouldn't reassure anyone, save perhaps the head-in-the-sand crowd at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); a society as closed as the North's could easily build a weapon elsewhere. Saddam also allowed inspections, after all, and the same IAEA told us not to worry.
The North's probable strategy will be to force a "compromise" that allows some inspections but keeps most of the country off-limits. It almost certainly won't allow genuine "challenge" inspections, which were part of the 1991 deal and which allowed outsiders to probe other suspect sites. The North might easily conclude from U.S. behavior so far that Mr. Clinton would prefer to declare "victory" rather than face the consequences of a confrontation. Meanwhile, the North could continue doing whatever it is doing in secret.
The rest of the world, of course, will understand what the North will have got away with. South Korea and Japan, in particular, will begin to question the American security commitment, perhaps moving to develop nuclear weapons themselves. We noted with interest the Nov. 14 story in the Independent newspaper that Britain is talking about selling reprocessed plutonium from its Thorp project to South Korea. Despite its rhetoric about nonproliferation, the Clinton Korea policy may be opening Pandora's box.
What's the alternative? It is to keep the pressure on. If China won't help on economic sanctions, work with Japan and South Korea to cut off the $700 million in hard currency remitted each year to the North by Korean exiles. Those who say a military strike against the North's reactors would be more dangerous than useful may well be right. But the U.S. could still underscore its commitment to Korea by holding "Team Spirit" and strengthening its conventional military presence. We'd also support a U.S. or United Nations effort to stop North Korean ships from delivering missiles to the Middle East. Such an effort would demonstrate that the world really is serious about stopping the spread of dangerous weapons.
In the end, the only certain nonproliferation policy toward nasty, closed regimes such as North Korea's is to change the government. Containment worked against the Soviet Union, while "engagement" with Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s obviously didn't change Saddam Hussein. We fear that Mr. Clinton's all-carrot diplomacy will fare no better in North Korea than a similar policy once did in Iraq.
How prophetic. 9 years later North Korea announces they have the bomb. One can only imagine that South Korea and Japan will start building their own as a result.
Of course, since North Korea has missiles capable of hitting Alaska, and have "the bomb" it makes them more of a threat than Iraq, wouldn't you say? And if reports are accurate that we had intelligence info about this, it also begs the question as to why there's been so much focus on Iraq instead of North Korea.
My personal take on that is that Iraq is a part of the "Muslim Nations" which could be (are?) a worse threat to us in the long run, unless they are dealt with now, while North Korea, even nuclear armed, is still isolated with virtually no friends in the world at all.