North Korea: Back to the Future

North Korea: Back to the Future

Now that North Korea has joined the nuclear club, Bush is finally willing to negotiate. Can he try that with Iran?


So now it’s North Korea’s turn to feed at the trough of US economic aid, as if exploding a nuclear weapon is all that’s needed to prove a nation’s peaceful intentions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with negotiating with our enemies rather than weakly blustering at cartoon images of them–I wish we would do the same in our dealings with Iran–but it would be nice if we would stop shooting ourselves in the foot first.

Five years and an outlaw nuke test after President Bush blew up the peace process with Pyongyang so he could look tougher than his predecessor, he capitulated completely earlier this month in accepting a negotiating framework that tacitly accepts the huge surge in the communist state’s estimated nuclear arsenal. Bush blinked big-time. The carrot replaced the stick, and that is a good thing, carrying the hope that through diplomacy North Korea will end its isolation and follow the modernizing path of communist China. But six years of presidential haranguing about rogue regimes derailed previous efforts at arms control, allowing the dangerously unstable North Korea to join the nuclear club.

In particular, Bush’s rejection of the Clinton Administration’s alleged pandering to North Korea gave that country’s erratic rulers a believable rationale to cut the international monitoring seals on their super-dangerous plutonium stores. Now Bush has had to go back, hat and heating oil in hand, to beg for a restart to negotiations with a nuked-up Pyongyang, which now is in an exponentially better bargaining position.

Distracted by the occupation of Iraq, a country that had no functioning nuclear weapons program or stockpiles of plutonium, and obsessed with regime change in Iran, a country with a very primitive nuclear program, the Bush team has decided to live with the North Korean bomb. Indeed, Bush has agreed to remove North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism–not because North Korea’s dictator abandoned his nuclear ambitions but rather because he achieved them.

The deal with Korea, involving massive economic aid and political legitimacy, is basically the one negotiated by the Clinton Administration back in 1994 that was shrilly derided by the Bushites until last week. It is also probably a smart move, à la Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing, to attempt to end North Korea’s dangerous isolation.

What was not smart was jettisoning the agreement Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had worked out to prevent North Korea from developing and testing a bomb in the first place. By that standard, we will only have peace with Iran, or Cuba, after it possesses the ability to kill lots and lots and lots of us–a lesson not likely to be ignored by other “rogue nations.”

After all, this is an Administration that lifted the sanctions on Pakistan the US imposed after that nation developed a nuclear arsenal. Why? Ostensibly because we needed Pakistan’s support in “the war on terror” after 9/11. But aid in that war has not been forthcoming, as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have just conceded in rare condemnations of Pakistan. Taliban supporters are thriving in the Pakistan-Afghan border region that Pakistan’s dictator abandoned to local tribal chiefs sympathetic to the militants.

Similarly, Pakistan has never been held to account for allowing its “father of the Islamic bomb,” A.Q. Khan, to spread nuclear bomb technology and expertise to rogue regimes–including North Korea and Iran. Khan remains protected under house arrest, off-limits to US intelligence agents seeking to interview him. No water-boarding for him, unlike the thousands of never-charged prisoners that the United States has ordered tortured around the world who couldn’t tell the interrogator the difference between uranium and plutonium.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is, far and away, the main threat to the survival of the human species on this planet, and yet President Bush has treated the problem not as a real scourge but rather a wonderful opportunity to pursue a totally unrelated agenda. Whether that agenda centers on his own political ambitions, the stated neoconservative fantasy of securing the Mideast for Israel or a bizarre interest in coaxing the biblical prophecy of Armageddon is a subject for debate.

What is not debatable is the recklessness of a policy that trivializes the danger of nuclear annihilation. Foreign policy hawks love to talk about “punishing” North Korea, but really the only measure of success in our dealings with that economic basket case of a nation is simple: Does it make the United States and the world safer? On this front, negotiating rather than bullying is the sensible course, and such a strategy must now be applied to Iran as well.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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