JPRI Critique Vol. XI, No. 3 (June 2004)
The Bush Administration’s Failed North Korea Policy
by Peter M. Beck

The Bush Administration’s mishandling of the North Korean nuclear threat has left us with a looming crisis that, if not managed properly, could be many times more horrific than the tragedy of September 11. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il does have “weapons of mass destruction,” and has indicated that if an invasion threat were imminent he would not hesitate to use them on American forces stationed in South Korea, the 12-million city of Seoul, and possibly cities in Japan.

Misjudging North Korea
I would like to focus on three failures of the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy that are responsible for the crisis we may soon face. The first is our inability to understand and accept North Korea the way it is, not the way we would like it to be. There is no question that Kim Jong-il heads a brutal and odious regime, but American media have compounded this by virtually demonizing him. For the second year in a row, Parade magazine recently selected him as the world’s worst dictator. One of the newsweeklies had an absurd cover featuring Kim as “Dr. Evil,” and even the New Yorker, usually a bastion of America’s liberal intelligentsia, had a leading article on September 8, 2003, entitled, “Kim Jong-il: How Crazy is He?” President Bush told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward that he “loathes” Kim Jong-il.

We must ask ourselves whether such caricatures and emotionalism serve America’s national interest or merely inflame a difficult political situation. North Korea watchers have consistently underestimated the regime’s capacity to survive since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Hope springs eternal, especially inside the Beltway, that the North will be the next regime to quietly and neatly fall, thus solving our problems. Many analysts and politicians have therefore paid little attention to the wording of the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 and ending our last crisis with North Korea, because they assumed the regime would be long gone before the two nuclear reactors the framework promised would be finished. Ten years and over a billion dollars later, regime change is much more likely to occur in Washington than in Pyeongyang.

Misjudging North Korea continues unabated. In the summer of 2002, the North implemented its most significant economic reforms since the founding of the regime in 1948. Yet, the currency, wage and price reforms, as well as the official recognition of thriving private markets, were dismissed by most analysts as being too little, too late. In 2003, the Institute for International Economics’ Marcus Noland went so far as to suggest that the reforms could be the beginning of the end because they would lead to instability and bring down the regime. Today, analysts like Dominique Dwor-Frecaut in Hong Kong are arguing that the reforms have had a positive and stabilizing effect on the economy. Change in the North is unlikely to occur at the pace the outside world would prefer, but significant changes are taking place. Moreover, these are precisely the types of reforms we encouraged another brutal, nominally Communist regime to undertake more than 20 years ago -- the People's Republic of China.

I should point out that our government does have people at the State Department and intelligence agencies who understand and can interpret North Korea’s words and actions properly. From Secretary Powell (who served in Korea) down to working-level specialists, we have a good dozen people at State alone with a deep, balanced and nuanced understanding of North Korea. However, as we saw in the case of Iraq, this administration is so ideologically driven that it has already made up its mind and does not want to listen to alternative views. Sadly, our diplomats and intelligence analysts are generally unable to do their jobs or ignored when it comes to North Korea.

Failure of Diplomacy
A second and more serious Bush Administration failure is the inability to engage in meaningful negotiations with North Korea. When the Bush team took power in 2001, there was a clear aversion to continuing the policy of engagement with the North begun by President Clinton. This attitude became known as the “Anything but Clinton” (ABC) approach to policymaking. However, after a six-month review, the Bush Administration reluctantly decided to uphold the 1994 Agreed Framework and even offered (so it said) to meet with the North “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions.” Unfortunately, it took another year before the two sides held an actual meeting. By then there was growing evidence in the intelligence community that the North was cheating on the Agreed Framework and had begun a heavily-enriched uranium program thanks to the help of Pakistan. Consequently, the first meeting turned into a confrontation rather than a dialogue. The stage had also been set months earlier for a spiraling downward thanks to President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, in which he declared North Korea to be a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.”

China became so worried that the deepening crisis would lead to war that it decided to take the unprecedented step last year of twisting Pyeongyang’s and Washington’s arms to come to the negotiating table. Bush’s former point person for North Korea, Jack Pritchard, has acknowledged that there would have been no talks were it not for Beijing’s active intervention. Unfortunately, one round of three-party talks and two rounds of six-party talks have accomplished little, if anything. Our lead negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, for whom I have the utmost respect, has entered the meetings with both hands firmly tied behind his back by being reduced to reading statements prepared by the most hawkish elements of the administration. News reports have suggested that at the second round of six-party talks in February of 2004, when the North Koreans asked what they would receive if they gave up their nuclear programs, they did not receive an answer. Until the Bush Administration decides to engage in serious negotiations with the North, the Six Party Talks will be virtually meaningless. As Pritchard himself put it in a January 21, 2004, op-ed in the New York Times, it is time for Washington to stop hiding behind China’s skirt and actually talk to the North. So far the neocons have refused to allow the State Department to engage in meaningful negotiations.

At the heart of the Bush Administration’s current objective vis-à-vis North Korea is a slogan that all U.S. officials are required to repeat over and over in public: “the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling” of North Korea's nuclear programs. Such a policy begs a question: given the thousands of tunnels and holes in the ground that North Korea has dug over the years, short of regime change, just how can we verify that any dismantling is complete, let alone irreversible? Moreover, the Bush Administration refuses to state explicitly what the North will receive in return for compliance. In a sense, we are telling the North, take off your clothes, and then we can talk. As if this were not enough to block any potential breakthroughs, the State Department’s director of policy planning, Mitchell Reiss, set the bar even higher on March 12, 2004, in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. In order to gain economic assistance from the United States, he insisted that the North must completely revamp its economy. How many adjustments can we expect North Korea to undertake all at once? Or, like pressing North Korea on its human rights record, is this just a signal that short of regime change, there can be no deal with the North?

Bush Administration officials like to cite the example of Libya’s decision earlier this year to unilaterally give up its entire WMD program. There are two major problems with the Libyan model. First, given the much more advanced stage of North Korea’s WMD programs, it has much more to lose domestically and internationally if it were to capitulate to the United States. Second, the Libya breakthrough was preceded by years of talks and months of intensive negotiations, something that has not been and is not the case with North Korea. Divisions within the Bush Administration over how to deal with North Korea have led to mixed signals that have severely undermined efforts to get North Korea to comply with our wishes. One day the message is “let's talk;” the next day there is a reversion to name-calling and threats.

Waiting for Godot
This vacillation has led to the third Bush Administration failure, which is the most serious of all -- namely, North Korea’s nuclear breakout. Given the Administration’s unwillingness to engage in negotiations with North Korea, what are our other options? I am quite sure that if the Administration hawks could have their way, they would favor a preemptive strike on the North. The problem is that not only would we risk a cataclysmic war, but our intelligence agencies do not know where the heavily enriched uranium program (not to mention the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been monitored by the IAEA) is located. Moreover, given the quagmire in Iraq, even the most rabid hawk recognizes that the United States has all of the regime change it can handle right now. A third option is to try to place an economic noose around North Korea’s neck and attempt a strangulation through sanctions and coercive diplomacy, but without the active participation of China and South Korea such a strategy would almost certainly fail. At present, Beijing and Seoul are equally frustrated with Washington’s and Pyeongyang’s intransigence.
A fourth and final option is the one being followed at present, which I call the “Waiting for Godot” approach: allow the North to continue its nuclear programs while praying that it will either capitulate or collapse. However, by the end of this year, the North could go from having zero-to-two nuclear devices to having 8-to-10. Not knowing what North Korea has already produced or is currently developing is yet another intelligence debacle in the making. I am not worried about North Korea being able to strike the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile any time soon, but I am very concerned that the North could try to sell a device or reprocessed nuclear material to the highest bidder. Given the North’s track record of selling drugs, missiles and other illicit goods, we must assume that nuclear material would expand their limited product line. This is utterly and completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, refusing to use carrots and lacking the proper sticks has eviscerated the efforts of the Bush Administration to defuse the looming crisis with North Korea.

The Clinton and Kim Dae-jung Administrations’ approaches to North Korea also fell well short of achieving their goals. Clinton’s policy of benign neglect was only a marginal improvement over the current Bush policy of malign neglect. The Clinton team only devoted attention to North Korea when it engaged in bad behavior; after the crisis of 1994, the North was essentially ignored until it test fired a missile over Japan in 1998. Despite a useful roadmap crafted by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Clinton dropped the ball again until the waning days of his term when he was scrambling to create a foreign policy legacy. The Kim Dae-jung Administration’s approach of throwing money at the North also did not yield the era of peace and prosperity that the South Korean public had hoped for.

Opponents of engagement draw on the Clinton-Kim record to conclude that this decade of disappointment means we should not negotiate with such an odious and untrustworthy regime. Pessimists like the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt argue that the North’s track record proves that it is not engageable, but he has yet to offer an alternative that will allow us to achieve our goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula peacefully. I would argue that the proper lessons to take from the past decade are that any future deals must be front-loaded, rather than back-loaded like the Agreed Framework was, and that assistance to the North should be conditional and not take the form of cash. Negotiating with the North is exasperating and difficult under the best of circumstances, but that does not mean that we should just give up. The alternatives -- a nuclear breakout or a war -- are unacceptable. As flawed as the Agreed Framework was, at least it froze the most immediate nuclear breakout threat. Ultimately, engagement with North Korea is an uncertain proposition. It’s entirely possible that the North will not give up its nuclear option under any circumstances, but we will not know until we try.

We have been involved in just such a gamble with the People’s Republic of China for the past 30 years. President Nixon (of all people) decided that it was in America’s national interest to engage China. Yet, despite having the fastest growing economy in the world, China remains a harsh dictatorship. If we added up the number of people actively opposed to the Chinese regime who are being jailed, reeducated, and/or repressed -- including residents of Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, members of Falun Gong, and democracy advocates -- it would probably exceed the entire population of North Korea. Not only is there no guarantee that China will remain our ally or become a democracy any time soon, but if it follows through on its threat to invade Taiwan, then our engagement gamble will clearly have failed. However, it is a risk that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans have been willing to take because it is deemed in America’s national interest to do so. The U.S. has plenty of unsavory allies. Pakistan’s President Musharaf, the world’s worst nuclear proliferator over the past 50 years, had the red carpet rolled out for him when he visited Washington last year because he is supposedly helping in the war on terrorism. As the saying goes, with friends like this, who needs enemies?

Despite our government’s failure to engage North Korea, a whole range of American, European and South Korean humanitarian groups are trying to help the North Korean people and coax the country onto the path of peace. For example, the East Coast-based Eugene Bell Foundation has been working tirelessly to fight tuberculosis in North Korea. Caritas, the humanitarian relief arm of the Catholic church, has been providing food to hungry North Korean children for almost a decade through its office in Hong Kong. The heads of both programs have made dozens of trips to North Korea and are two of the greatest resources for information about and understanding of North Korea. The Korea Society in New York is helping Syracuse University and the Kim Chaek University of Technology develop an educational exchange program. Through patience and persistence, these organizations have built the type of trust that is so lacking between our two governments.
The Bush Administration seems content essentially to ignore North Korea until after the presidential election. Given the stated preferences of the neocons, I would argue that “Waiting for Godot” is better than a horrific war. At a minimum, this gives Americans an opportunity to vote for leaders who are committed to pursuing peace rather than war, whether that war is by design, default, or miscalculation. Someone like Republican House member Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania has steadfastly tried to engage North Korea despite endless roadblocks put up by the Bush Administration. We must not let the Bush Administration’s foreign policy failures become a tragedy for the Korean Peninsula and yet another nightmare for the world.

PETER M. BECK is the director of research at the Korea Economic Insitute in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and American Universities. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the Korea Economic Institute. He can be reached by e-mail at

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