The latest crisis with North Korea appears to be about the North finally declaring that it has the bomb, but in fact it is about the Bush Administration’s inability to hide or control sharp internal conflicts over what to do about the North–a split likened by Joseph Biden, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, to “the San Andreas fault.” Powell sends negotiators to meet North Koreans, Rumsfeld schemes for another preventive war, Cheney nurses a private foreign policy and Bush dithers. North Korea, which knows its own interests far better than the Bush crowd knows US interests, runs rings around them by appearing to turn over its ace in the hole, then putting it back in the deck. The result is the failure of Bush’s North Korea policy: In two years it has accomplished exactly nothing–except for a major anti-American movement in Seoul and perhaps the creation of circumstances in which the North was left with no choice but to go nuclear.
As Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was preparing for Beijing meetings with North Korea in late April, Donald Rumsfeld circulated a memo, later leaked, arguing for a joint Chinese-American effort to overthrow Kim Jong Il’s regime. That bizarre and fanciful scheme presumes that China, which allied with Kim Il Sung when he joined the Chinese Communist Party during his guerrilla days in the 1930s, would now turn on Pyongyang because Rumsfeld wants it to. This opera buffa also recapitulated Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang in October, when he tried to restart high-level negotiations in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Bush’s pre-emptive strike doctrine and another strategic leak placing North Korea at the top of the preventive-war list.
This time Kelly again harped on the theme that North Korea had to dismantle its nuclear program before anything else could happen, and so the North Koreans sprang on him the news that the North already possessed a nuclear weapon, which (according to Kelly’s interpretation) it might test, use or sell on the international market. The talks ended abruptly. Bush averred that the North was “back to their old blackmail game.” But he wants the North to give up its nuclear program with no compensation and no assurances about its security. That is an “infantile and nonsensical” position, the party newspaper said, given what happened in Iraq. “The DPRK will be left with no option but to do everything to defend itself unless the US legally guarantees no use of arms, including nukes, against the DPRK.”
This past October Kelly accused the North of beginning a second nuclear program by importing uranium-enrichment technology from Pakistan. The North admitted as much, or so Kelly told us, and the meetings dissolved amid mutual rancor. Finally, in April we learned that the North’s “talking points” for the October meetings included a trade-off of its nuclear programs and its missile exports in return for US aid and recognition of the DPRK.
In the aftermath of the October meeting the Administration announced that the only thing worth talking to Pyongyang about was how it was going to dismantle its nuclear programs, and the only acceptable forum for such discussions was a multilateral one. In April, however, the State Department suddenly agreed to meet in Beijing for what were, in effect, open-ended bilateral talks–thus reversing Bush’s “policy” yet again. The North said it made a “bold proposal” to settle all outstanding problems, but Kelly ignored it. Days later Powell was forced to admit the North had indeed offered to “scrap” its nukes and missiles if Washington would normalize relations and provide basic security guarantees. It also turned out that Kelly’s interpreters were mistaken: The North had said nothing about testing or selling nuclear weapons.
If the United States were to do what the North Koreans want, it would return things to Clinton’s unfulfilled promises in the framework agreement of October 1994, including normalizing relations with the North and refraining from threatening it. And it would revive the missile deal Clinton successfully negotiated before leaving office, which Bush turned his back on. But Bush can’t do that: Diplomacy with the North is anathema to the Republican right.
Most experts do not believe that North Korea has a usable nuclear weapon, or that it could possibly have reprocessed its 8,000 fuel rods after regaining control of them from UN inspectors in January. Thus, even today, it has only enough plutonium for one or two crude nuclear devices. Since 1991 the North Koreans have cleverly kept their nuclear ace in the hole concealed while pushing and prodding Washington toward normalizing relations and guaranteeing their security. In Beijing they appeared to turn their hole card over, and Kelly fell for it. Clinton Administration officials say that back in 1993 North Korea related the same story about having a bomb, again in an unstructured verbal aside during negotiations, and they chose to ignore it. The Bush Administration, to the contrary, leaks everything it hears.
North Korea often says it prizes national sovereignty like life itself; this has been the leitmotif of the regime since it was founded in the aftermath of decades of brutal Japanese colonialism, and more so after we tried to “liberate” it in 1950, at an appalling human cost. Bush, however, has run roughshod over essential principles of international relations and world peace: In place of respect for other nations’ sovereignty, he puts assassination, “decapitation” and “regime change.” Our last foray into North Korea helped bring about an armed-to-the-teeth garrison state, and fifty years later it is still with us. If North Korea does finally get the bomb, there’s very little we can do about it. So let’s just call it Bush’s bomb.