Washington vs. Pyongyang: War or Diplomacy?

Posted January 7, 2006

Categories: Articles, Korea

Washington vs. Pyongyang: War or diplomacy?


In this analysis of US policy, John Feffer shows how Bush’s combination of uncompromising negotiating positions, strong rhetoric and firm containment measures has served to accelerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme instead of ushering in the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, Republican reverses in the recent US mid-term elections may not, in Feffer’s view, result in a change of course.


OVER the last six months, North Korea has gone to great lengths to get the world’s attention. In July, it launched missiles. And in October, it made a bid to become the latest member of the nuclear club. As a result, it has endured world condemnation, the criticism of its closest ally China, and the passage of UN sanctions. Finally, after bilateral meetings with US representatives brokered by China, North Korea made headlines once again by agreeing to return to six-way talks designed to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.

Despite all of these efforts, North Korea didn’t register much as an issue in the US mid-term elections. American voters were focused on domestic scandals and on the war in Iraq.  According to pre-election polls, a majority of Americans believe that the United States should talk to both Iran and North Korea without preconditions. But after the announcement that it would return to the Six Party Talks, North Korea largely disappeared from discussion in the United States.

These factors – the nuclear test, the decision to return to the bargaining table, and the clear repudiation of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in the US elections – should alter the dynamics of US-North Korean relations. With a declared nuclear capacity, North Korea appears to be in a stronger negotiating position. The Bush administration appears to be moving toward compromise. Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and replacement by realist Robert Gates as the head of the Pentagon is another potential sign of a breakthrough in the US-North Korea standoff.

But all of these changes, however dramatic, may not serve to make much of a difference in US policy toward the Korean peninsula. Indeed, given the Democratic Party’s perennial fear of appearing to be weak on military issues, the next two years might simply offer more of the same from Washington: uncompromising negotiating positions, strong rhetoric, and firm containment measures.


Origins of US policy


Six years ago, when George W Bush took office, North Korea didn’t claim membership in the nuclear club. Its plutonium reprocessing facilities were frozen. In the waning days of the Clinton administration, North Korea was even willing to negotiate away its missile programme.

Bush immediately reversed Clinton’s approach. Instead of pursuing the diplomatic route, the Bush administration tried to ignore Pyongyang in the hopes that the North Korean regime would topple just like the communist governments in Warsaw, Bucharest, and East Berlin. But North Korea showed remarkable resilience, having survived the collapse of its Soviet trading partner and several years of extreme famine in the mid-1990s. It dug in its heels to resist the ‘containment-plus’ tactics of the Bush administration. So the administration decided to push a little harder. In 2002, Bush lumped North Korea together with Iraq and Iran in an ‘axis of evil’, implying a shortlist of candidates for regime change.

When indifference and insult failed to move the isolated East Asian country, the administration accused North Korea of enriching uranium – pursuing a second path to a bomb – which led to the unravelling of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the reigniting of a major crisis. To top it off, charging North Korea with counterfeiting and money-laundering, Washington launched an effort to shut down all of Pyongyang’s financial connections with the outside world.

And still, North Korea showed no signs of collapse. By 2003, in the absence of a dramatic coup or military putsch in Pyongyang, the Bush administration had to demonstrate that it was not just twiddling its thumbs while North Korea unfroze its plutonium reprocessing facilities and moved full-speed ahead toward a nuclear arsenal. The faintest whiff of weapons of mass destruction had justified US military intervention in Iraq. And all the United States could do with North Korea was call it names?

Thus was born the Six Party Talks, a multilateral effort involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. A remarkable group of diplomats gathered to talk, but alas, not to negotiate. Guided by the uncompromising Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush administration has viewed any meaningful negotiations with North Korea – and the prospect of any serious agreement – as simply prolonging the lifespan of the North Korean regime. The State Department was on a short leash. The Bush administration refused to negotiate bilaterally, which was North Korea’s negotiating process of choice. In the Bush-Cheney lexicon, compromise equals appeasement and ‘Munich’ stops all conversations.

The problem with the strategy of pointless talking was: North Korea was not satisfied with cat-and-mouse manoeuvres. Its economy reeling and its population malnourished, the North Korean government wanted a deal.  And the only thing worth trading that it possessed – or that the world thought it possessed – was a nuclear programme.


North Korean nukes


North Korea initially developed a nuclear programme to acquire an independent source of energy and become less reliant on Soviet and Chinese imports. As its economy started to deteriorate, however, North Korea’s conventional military forces began to lag significantly behind that of South Korea. Nuclear weapons seemed like a cheap way of maintaining a strategic balance. When the Soviet Union withdrew its nuclear umbrella, a third reason for the nuclear programme emerged. As the United States launched various regime-change strategies in the 1990s (Serbia) and during the Bush administration (Afghanistan, Iraq), the potential deterrent value of North Korea’s nuclear programme  increased.

The nuclear test is the logical consequence of the North’s policy over the last four years. It accelerated its nuclear programme to deter US attacks, but it also needed a bargaining chip to trade for status, cash, and other goodies. It froze its nuclear programme under the 1994 Agreed Framework, but probably kept some reprocessed plutonium in reserve just in case and began a covert but very rudimentary uranium-enrichment programme as a similar insurance policy. When the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002, North Korea changed tactics, declaring that it did in fact have nukes, which served to strengthen its deterrent capabilities and increase its ask at the negotiating table.

But the Bush administration wasn’t dealing. So North Korea ended its self-imposed missile moratorium last July. And when that didn’t get the United States into one-on-one negotiations, it raised the ante once again with a nuclear test.

The nuclear test is a signal to the international community that North Korea refuses to be disrespected, have its sovereignty abridged, or suffer a full-frontal military assault. But the test also serves various internal purposes.

The staff of the country’s nuclear complex – scientists, military officials, government representatives – have an important stake in seeing their project through to completion. As George Perkovich perceptively argued in his book India’s Nuclear Bomb, the team developing nuclear weapons is not simply a group of technicians that can be turned on or off depending on government whim. The nuclear complex develops political power within the overall government system. Tasked to create a bomb, it must demonstrate its success or it will lose that power. A nuclear test translates into bonuses and promotions, and consolidated political power within the system.

But did North Korea really test the bomb? The verdict isn’t yet in. The recent test was probably a small weapon tested unsuccessfully. However, from North Korea’s point of view, the perception of deterrence is more important than the reality. It wants to prevent an attack. If the United States and others are scared off by empty underground caverns – like Kumchang-ri in 1998 – or by the mere appearance of a credible nuclear weapon, so much the cheaper.


To strike or not to strike


The Bush administration has insisted on keeping all options on the table, even though the Pentagon has made it clear that a military strike against North Korea would lead to retaliatory attacks and a war that would kill 600,000 North Koreans, 300,000 South Koreans, and as many as 100,000 US soldiers. The Pentagon has also confessed that it would have great difficulty eliminating the dispersed nuclear facilities in North Korea. Meanwhile, the economic costs of the war would be astronomical.

For military, economic, and political reasons, it doesn’t make sense for the Bush administration to launch an attack against any country at this moment. Alas, the administration ignored the top-level Pentagon advice on Iraq. It could do so again with North Korea.

If the military option is not really on the table, the Bush administration is running out of choices. It is unveiling a new set of financial sanctions and wants inspections on all cargo going in and out of North Korea. But Pyongyang, while not exactly revelling in its isolation of late, is accustomed to being the odd man out. Kim Jong Il’s regime endured several famine years; perhaps it calculates that two more cold-shoulder years from the Bush administration are survivable.

For some in the Bush administration, the nuclear test is cause for celebration. The coterie around Dick Cheney rejoices at the growing divide between North Korea and China, the more aggressive military and foreign policy of Japan, and the compromised efforts of South Korea to engage the North. The nuclear test is the most effective argument the Cheney crowd can use to defeat calls for diplomacy. An amplified North Korean threat works wonders on Capitol Hill and with US allies to push missile defence, more military spending, and the like.

But the recent test has not destroyed the diplomatic option. Pyongyang has reiterated its willingness to negotiate. It doesn’t have much choice. A nuclear weapon can’t feed its people or rebuild its factories. The real question is whether the United States under a new Congress will be ready to deal.


To talk or not to talk


North Korea’s nuclear test was a very visible sign of the failure of the Bush administration’s strategy. While conservative fingers pointed in many directions – Clinton for negotiating a supposedly flawed treaty, South Korea for pursuing an ‘appeasing’ engagement policy, Beijing for not sufficiently pressuring Pyongyang, and North Korea for its reckless behaviour – the Bush administration has had difficulty explaining how its policies of insult, indifference, and ‘containment-plus’ made the situation any better.

After the test, the administration moved quickly to push through UN sanctions, compromising on the language of the measure to win support from Russia and China.  While it prepares to implement these sanctions, the Bush administration has shown a measure of flexibility toward Pyongyang. First, the Bush administration authorised face-to-face meetings with China as mediator that led to North Korea’s decision to return to the Six Party Talks. Second, a compromise on financial sanctions appears to be in the offing, as the US Treasury Department agreed to hold direct bilateral negotiations with North Korea alongside the Six Party Talks.

It might well be that the Bush administration orchestrated the compromise with North Korea to boost its foreign policy reputation before the November elections. But regardless of motivation, the stage is set for another round of talks and the Democrats are primed to turn congressional attention back to security issues. If the Six Party Talks falter, they will be quick to push for bilateral negotiations – in conjunction or separately.

When they were launched in 2003, the Six Party Talks focused on refreezing North Korea’s nuclear programme in exchange for a variety of political and economic benefits. Now, however, the talks must address a whole new set of problems: the restrictive financial regulations imposed in fall 2005, the new round of sanctions that follow the UN resolution, and the new developments in North Korea’s nuclear programme.  Even if all sides were equally committed to reaching an agreement, the sheer range and complexity of the issues make the talks a diplomatic challenge.


A new US policy?


In May 2003, 67% of Americans were satisfied with America’s place in the world, according to a Gallup poll. But a Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll released shortly before the 7 November elections showed a complete reversal in attitudes: 68% of Americans were dissatisfied with America’s global position. Foreign policy was a huge albatross around the neck of the administration, and numerous Republican Party candidates in the mid-term elections did whatever they could to distance themselves from their leadership’s policies.

The Democratic Party is planning to move quickly on a number of key foreign policy issues, including the US military presence in Iraq and global climate change. It is not likely, however, that Korea policy will rank high on the list of priorities.

First of all, Congress hasn’t had much influence over the development of North Korea policy over the last five years.  During the Clinton years, the Republican-controlled Congress put obstacles in the path of fulfilling the stipulations of the Agreed Framework. Under George W Bush, however, Congress failed to address nuclear issues, concentrating instead on human rights questions. The drama of US policy toward Pyongyang, such that it was, revolved around conflicts between the State Department and the Vice President’s office. Congress was only a spectator, at least on security matters.

A week before North Korea’s nuclear test in October, disgusted with the de facto US policy toward North Korea and its own lack of influence, Congress passed a measure forcing the administration to appoint a policy coordinator for North Korea by mid-December. The character of North Korea policy over the next two years will depend a great deal on the character of the policy coordinator.  In the late 1990s, William Perry served as an apt mediator between the Clinton administration and a sceptical Congress.  If the Bush administration is willing to re-evaluate honestly its policy toward Pyongyang, it will appoint a similarly adroit diplomat.

Even with a skilled policy coordinator in place, the Democrats in Congress will play a very careful game. Eyeing the next presidential elections, they will not likely put forward any policies that might jeopardise their chances. And they will be particularly sensitive to charges of being ‘weak’ on defence, non-proliferation, and terrorism.

This fear of being branded ‘weak’ has prompted Democrats all along to put forward hardline policies on North Korea. The Clinton administration nearly triggered a war with North Korea before the intervention of former president Jimmy Carter in 1994. Democrats such as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry have tried to talk tough on the issue, arguing that the Bush administration ignored a real threat in North Korea to go after an imagined threat in Iraq. William Perry, Ashton Carter, and Walter Mondale all endorsed a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. As the Democrats expose themselves to charges of weakness for advocating a withdrawal from Iraq, they may well compensate by looking tough in other parts of the world. Since North Korea is an easy target, this might be the logical place for them to show their hawkish credentials.

As such, the change in leadership in Congress will not mark much of a shift in US policy. ‘You won’t see a sudden change,’ long-serving House Democrat Tom Lantos declared after the elections. The Democrats and Republicans ‘basically share the same goals and objectives’.


Realism returns?


There is much talk in Washington of the return of realism to the conduct of US foreign policy. With Rumsfeld gone and some key congressional hardliners temporarily out of work, there is speculation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be able to reassert the values of diplomacy in the last two years of the Bush White House.

If the replacement of Rumsfeld with Robert Gates is any indication, however, realism may not reign any time soon in Washington.  Although Gates is associated with voices of pragmatism such as Brent Scowcroft, he was along with Dick Cheney one of the more hawkish members of the George H W Bush administration.  Both Gates and Cheney favoured a hardline approach toward Gorbachev’s changing Soviet Union.  Gates provided the intelligence backing for the US military invasion of Panama.  And he was also known for shaping intelligence reports to fit particular political conclusions, which was also a Rumsfeld trait.

Given his view that the Soviet Union was essentially evil, Gates is likely to side philosophically with regime-change advocates in the Bush administration even if he provides nominal support for negotiations with North Korea.  He will probably have the support of hawkish Democrats. And with the electoral losses of key moderate voices such as Jim Leach and Curt Weldon in the House, and the sidelining of Richard Lugar in the Senate, fewer Republican Party voices will be counselling a sensible stance toward North Korea.

In the same way that the Democrats were able to count on a fortuitous confluence of events to take over both the House and Senate, the negotiators in the Six Party Talks may well take advantage of a series of happy circumstances to achieve a breakthrough. But with a hardliner replacing Rumsfeld, the Democrats worried about being labelled ‘appeasers’, and North Korea unwilling to give up its single bargaining chip until the rest of the world backs off a few steps, the next two years will not necessarily see a reversal of the mistakes of the last five.

Third World Resurgence, October/November 2006


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