Copyright – The Boston Globe
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27, 2005
BOSTON North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il is acting up again. This time, he has shut down the country’s 5MW nuclear reactor. This could be for routine maintenance. Or it could be the start of a process to extract plutonium from the reactor to build more nuclear weapons. The CIA believes North Korea already has two, plus material for perhaps six to eight more. A third possibility could be a bluff to strengthen his bargaining position.
In deciding how to respond, the Bush administration should remember the adage that to overcome your adversary, you must imagine how he thinks.
Imagine, for example, you’re the leader of an isolated country whose conventional military is increasingly ineffective, whose economy has collapsed, whose benefactor has pulled the plug on you, and whom the world views with contempt.
Now pretend you have one card up your sleeve: a fledgling plutonium-based nuclear program that is frozen under a controversial agreement and a nascent, illegal uranium-based nuclear program to back it up. What would you do if the U.S. president:
1) Lists you as one of three members in an “axis of evil” (the other two being Iraq and Iran)?
2) Implements a national strategy of preemptive defense, allowing for a first-strike attack against you?
3) Employs this strategy to invade Iraq, which turns out not to have nuclear weapons, and deposes its leader?
4) Refuses to join European allies in engaging Iran – the other member of the “axis” – whose nuclear program is far less developed than yours (even though he now says he doesn’t oppose their efforts)?
As leader of this isolated nation in question, you can:
1) Give up your nuclear program and hope that the president who despises you lets you stay in office.
2) Sit by quietly while the president polishes off Saddam Hussein in Iraq and turns his attention to the “totalitarian” regime in Iran, knowing that when he’s done in the Gulf, he’ll likely come after you as the last standing member of the axis.
3) Unfreeze your nuclear program, build as many nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, and try to hold off what looks like a near certain attempt to force your country’s collapse.
If you’re sitting in Pyongyang, the choice isn’t very difficult. Kim may be ruthless and immoral, but he is not stupid. He has acted as any leader would to ensure his and his nation’s survival.
So where do we Americans go from here? Attacking North Korea militarily isn’t an option. We don’t know where all of its nuclear installations and material are located. A military strike would also likely start a war in a region that is home to 80,000 to 90,000 U.S. troops. It would further rupture vital alliances, particularly with China and South Korea, our third and seventh largest trading partners.
A hard-line policy short of a military strike isn’t the answer either. To date, the administration’s muddled approach to North Korea has only elicited the very reaction it sought to avoid. In 2001, the North had zero to two nuclear weapons. Today, it may have six to eight. In 2001, the North’s plutonium program was frozen and monitored by international inspectors. Today, the North has unfrozen the program, reprocessed the plutonium and is on the verge of reprocessing more.
All this means that the only option is meaningful engagement, a policy we have avoided by demanding that the North dismantle its entire nuclear program before it receives anything concrete in return other than heavy fuel oil. But there are few leaders foolish enough to give up the one card that guarantees their nation’s survival based only on promises of future concessions by an adversary they don’t trust.
To be sure, Kim knows that he cannot survive without opening his country. He has studied China and Vietnam to see how leaders there embraced economic reform while holding on to political power. He has begun to implement some of the changes he has seen with modest success. Visitors report seeing more goods in stores and more activity on the streets.
Kim can’t do it alone, however. He has to have outside help. If the United States, China, South Korea and Japan do not help him open to the world, he will revert to whatever he has to do to survive – peddling nukes or nuclear material for much needed currency. This would be our worst nightmare.
We must therefore hold our noses in seeking to bring the North into the world community, including securing its membership in security forums, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, etc.
In taking this approach, we must make clear that we will engage the North only on the condition that it does not conduct a nuclear test or sell its nuclear know-how or stockpile to others. Crossing this red line will bring the severest consequences immediately – with an iron-clad guarantee from China that it will not use its veto in the Security Council to prevent this. To be sure, the prospect of doing another deal with Kim Jong Il is unpalatable. But letting the situation spiral further out of control is unpardonable.
(Jason T. Shaplen was policy adviser at the Korean Peninsula Energy Organization from 1995-1999. James Laney was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993-1997. This article appeared in The Boston Globe.)