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No Rationale for Kim's Irrationality

  • Alan W. Dowd
  • Oct 13, 2006
  • : National Policy, National Security

The president’s critics are gloating over North Korea’s  apparent nuclear test. Predictably, Sen. John Kerry was among the first to pounce, melodramatically labeling President George W. Bush’s inability to control a madman—Sen. Kerry’s word, not mine—a “shocking failure.” According to Kerry, “While we’ve been bogged down in Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction, a madman has apparently tested the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.”

Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress adds, “It is difficult to know what is worse, the failure of the Bush administration to stop this threat or the pompous pronouncements coming from the White House and our United Nations ambassador.” According to Cirincione, “U.S. officials do not have a clue as to what to do now.” Of course, they didn’t in the 1990s either. Indeed, it’s difficult to listen to a lecture about proliferation failures from someone who points to the Clinton administration’s proliferation record as an example of success. Recall that North Korea crashed into the nuclear club in the mid-1990s, just before India and Pakistan shook the subcontinent with a spasm of nuclear tests.  

Cirincione’s solution to North Korea’s nukes is “to contain the North Korean program and begin to roll it back.” Rollback and containment—how appropriate for the Cold War leftover on the Korean peninsula. But to achieve his ends, Cirincione proposes a dead-end detour through the UN Security Council “to isolate North Korea.” Setting aside the fact that North Korea cannot be much more isolated than it already is, has anyone learned anything from the UN’s failure to stop genocide in Rwanda or Darfur, end the vivisection of Bosnia, prevent the depopulation of Kosovo, force Saddam Hussein to comply with a decade’s worth of UN resolutions, or keep Iran tethered to the NPT?  

Yes, the UN has passed a resolution denouncing Pyongyang (as it did in July), but the real test comes when teeth are added to the words. And the UN always fails that test. 

Cirincione urges direct negotiations with Pyongyang, with mediation from incoming UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and/or the People’s Republic of China. But it seems unlikely that the North Korean Communists will view a South Korean as an impartial mediator. And if China was unable or unwilling to rein in North Korea during the last decade, why would it be any more dependable or effective going forward?  

Such criticisms of Bush’s hard-line/cold-shoulder stance on North Korea come on the heels of former Defense Secretary William Perry’s critique that Bush has been too soft in dealing with Kim Jong Il. Recall that in July, when Kim threw his last temper tantrum, Perry argued in The Washington Post that Bush should bomb North Korea. “If North Korea persists in its launch preparations,” Perry advised, “the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.”  

Of course, as a less-bellicose Perry warned in 2002, the cure should never be worse than the disease. “The likely result of such a strike,” as Perry concluded once upon a time, “would be a spasmodic lashing out by North Korea’s antiquated but large and fanatical military across the DMZ.” Bombing a North Korean missile base or nuclear site would, quite simply, trigger another Korean War. This one would not end in stalemate—in fact, it would end the North Korean regime—but it would be bloody. And the result of that would be thousands of U.S. casualties, tens of thousands of South Korean casualties and millions of refugees.  

In short, there are no good options in North Korea. And no one deserves all the blame for this mess except Kim Jong Il, who has proceeded down this reckless path for his own irrational reasons. Some say it’s because Washington is preoccupied with Iran’s nuclear program and Kim wants attention, others because he wants to advertise his cash crop of missiles and nukes, still others because a South Korean will soon head the UN. 

But the rationale for this irrationality is irrelevant. John Kerry is correct on at least one thing: Kim Jong Il is a madman, and it’s impossible to reason or negotiate with a madman. The Clinton administration tried for the better part of decade—and failed. That’s why proposals that invoke the Cold War example of summitry and diplomatic chess-matches (like Cirincione’s) are not particularly helpful. Moscow was rational and hence deterrable. Kim is not the former and as a consequence may not be the latter. 

Recall that President Bill Clinton tried direct engagement through emissaries such as Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albright, and current New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson—and failed. At best, all they succeeded at was kicking the problem down the road. Along the way, Clinton was given options such as preemptive strikes, blockades, and according to some reports even a plan to use nuclear weapons to deprive Kim of nuclear weapons.  

But Clinton had no stomach for preemptive war of either the nuclear or conventional variety. And who could blame him? As the Congressional Research Service concluded in a mid-1994 report about North Korea’s nuclear program, “The tactical success of a counter-proliferation mission could be lost in the consequences of another war on the Korean peninsula.”  

So rather than making war, Clinton chose to make a deal. It was a deal Pyongyang couldn’t refuse. After all, the North Koreans got everything they wanted, and as we now know (and as many warned in the 1990s), they kept everything they wanted. The nuclear materials stayed put; the construction of a nuclear arsenal went forward, albeit underground; and the drive for missilery continued. In fact, a year after Perry left the Pentagon, Washington was caught completely by surprise as North Korea test-fired a long-range missile similar to the ones it brandished in July. (Nowadays, at least, America isn’t surprised when Pyongyang detonates a nuke or fires off a fusillade of unguided missiles.) 

It’s ironic that Bush is so often caricatured for eschewing the UN and acting unilaterally, while Clinton is lionized for his enlightened multilateralism, when Clinton was the unilateralist and Bush the multilateralist on North Korea. Recall that Clinton’s policy of engagement was totally unilateral in practice—and it failed. Bush’s North Korea policy, on the other hand, has been premised on multilateralism and working through the UN’s machinery—and it too appears to have failed.  

Bush’s six-party talks forced North Korea to sit across from the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan—all of whom ostensibly agreed that Pyongyang should give up its weapons. In fact, once pressured into this multilateral setting, Pyongyang even agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. Of course, while North Korea’s diplomats talked, North Korea’s technicians and military had other plans. 

In short, neither Clinton’s soft unilateralism nor Bush’s hard multilateralism worked. It’s time to try something else. And the good news is that something else is already in the works. A regional missile defense, for example, is taking shape, with Japan and Australia joining the U.S. in building a multi-layered shield against Pyongyang.  

There are other, less defensive options at the ready. All of them carry some measure of risk, but all of them send an unmistakable message to Kim and more specifically to his military:

  • A quarantine of North Korea aimed at intercepting any outbound shipment and thus preventing leakage of nuclear materials to other enemy states and stateless groups would definitely lasso the North Korean regime and could probably gain international approval. At the very least, such an operation would win the support of a coalition of the willing enfolding Japan, South Korea, Australia, the UK, Canada and the United States.
  • If Kim and company want to make the peninsula a nuclear tripwire, Washington can redeploy nuclear weapons on the southern side of the DMZ. The first Bush administration withdrew them in 1991.
  • And if North Korea’s generals haven’t yet gotten a clear signal from China to step back from the brink, perhaps a Japanese nuclear program will provide some encouragement to Beijing and ultimately to Kim’s military.

Tokyo may not want to take that step just yet, but one can imagine that Prime Minister Abe is closer today than he was Sunday. Perhaps all he needs now is a signal from Washington. Pyongyang may yet regret what it has done—and Beijing what it has failed to do—to allow the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

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