Bush Policy Undermines Progress on Korean Peninsula

President Bush’s inclusion of North Korea in an “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq is only the latest indication of Washington’s new hard-line approach to Pyongyang. Since taking office, the Bush team has deliberately distanced itself from the Clinton administration’s policy of engaging the former “state of concern.” Even North Korea’s condemnation of the events of September 11 and its continued repudiation of terrorism have done little to repair the frayed ties. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea (DPRK) are deteriorating into a slow-motion catastrophe with unpredictable consequences for the region and the world. Until recently an oasis of increasing cooperation in a conflict-prone world, the Korean Peninsula has again become a dangerous place.

One administration ago, the U.S. was poised for a breakthrough with North Korea. After the two countries exchanged high-level visits—second-in-command Jo Myong Rok to Washington, Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang—Clinton was prepared to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in December 2000 and hammer out an accord to compensate the isolated state for curtailing its missile program. Domestic politics intruded in the form of the Florida vote counting fiasco. Pre-visit negotiations broke down, Clinton never went to Pyongyang, and North Korea has continued to declare its export policy nobody’s business but its own.

On taking office, the Bush team immediately announced a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Halfway through this process, the administration revealed its hand when President Kim Dae Jung visited Washington in March 2001. The South Korean president has staked his reputation on engaging the North in peaceful cooperation, a courageous stance that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. In March, however, Bush damned the “sunshine policy” with faint praise and erroneously stated that North Korea had violated its “agreements” with the United States.

The review of North Korea policy confirmed this new trajectory. The Bush administration called on North Korea to stop selling missiles to countries such as Iraq and Iran, although such exports do not violate any agreement. Washington also wanted to include other issues in bilateral negotiations, such as North Korea’s conventional forces. And, despite objections from North Korea, the Bush team began to drop hints that it wanted to renegotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework, which freezes North Korea’s nuclear research program in exchange for compensatory energy.

In response to this new hard-line approach, North Korea not only pulled away from negotiations with the U.S. but derailed ongoing efforts to reconcile with South Korea. At the same time, however, North Korea maintained a moratorium on missile launches declared in 1999 and continued to abide by the Agreed Framework, still the only agreement it has with the United States. Late in the summer of 2001, when the Bush administration attempted to revive negotiations by dropping its preconditions, North Korea remained wary.

The events of September 11 might have sparked a rapprochement. After condemning the attacks, North Korea promptly announced that it would sign the remaining international antiterrorism conventions that it hadn’t already ratified. But the U.S. kept North Korea on its terrorism list and maintained the accompanying economic sanctions. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address underscored the administration’s belief that North Korea sponsors terrorism alongside Iraq and Iran. The president’s inflammatory language, although mitigated by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assurances that the administration is not planning to attack the trio, provoked deep concern in close U.S. allies Japan and South Korea.

This will be a pivotal year for the Korean Peninsula. According to Kim Jong Il, the North Korean moratorium on missile tests will last until the end of 2002. According to the South Korean political calendar, the next presidential elections will occur at the end of 2002. Given the current political climate in the South, Kim Dae Jung’s party and its sunshine policy may be voted out of office. According to the Agreed Framework, 2003 is the target date for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to finish building two light-water nuclear reactors.

Bush’s first trip to East Asia this February did little to calm allies, reach out to adversaries, or avert the looming crisis. The doomsday clock in East Asia has ticked one minute closer to midnight. The current administration has only a handful of months remaining in this critical year to help turn back the clock.

Problems with US Policy

Current U.S. policy toward North Korea is guilty of three principal policy errors: misidentification, misinterpretation, and mystification.

The first problem is currently the most dangerous. Lumping North Korea with Iran and Iraq in a Satanic trinity is a fundamental misidentification. North Korea is not the Taliban nor is it Iraq. North Korea is not sponsoring terrorist operations. According to the U.S. State Department, North Korea hasn’t engaged in terrorism since the 1980s. It remains on the U.S. terrorism list for a largely tangential reason—harboring Japanese Red Army members from a 1970 hijacking.

Nor is North Korea essentially anti-American. Despite its current political structure, which is undeniably authoritarian, or its current rhetoric, which is reactively anti-American, North Korea wants to improve relations with the U.S.—desperately. North Korea sells weapons not as part of a global anti-American conspiracy, but because it needs the hard currency.

In the 1990s, Pyongyang prioritized dealings with Washington in order to solve its dire economic problems. North Korea has sent its high officials to the U.S. for training in economics and energy. Out of 503 North Korean officials and academics sent abroad last year, 480 studied the market economy. Having decided to move toward the free market—cautiously and without relinquishing political control—the North Korean leadership wants to understand Wall Street, not undermine it.

The second error in current U.S. policy toward the DPRK is misinterpretation. The Bush administration believes that North Korea poses a direct threat to the United States. Like the previously touted Soviet menace, the North Korean threat is inflated. The longest range missile that North Korea has tested can’t fly further than 2500 km (1500 miles), and these missiles have not been deployed. Its launch facility, according to the Federation of American Scientists, is primitive and can support only limited operations. Intelligence sources confirm that Russia and China have withheld key warhead technology from their erstwhile ally to prevent North Korea from “going nuclear.” The extent of North Korea’s biological and chemical weapons remains unknown, but it is currently incapable of targeting the U.S. with these weapons. The North Korean Army is large but inadequately trained, fed, and equipped.

North Korea is not a toothless tiger. If attacked, it could certainly lay waste to South Korea. But its first-strike capability is limited. North Korea’s missile program serves an economic and deterrent purpose rather than a serious offensive function.

The Bush administration has implied that North Korea is in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. Although testing the patience of negotiators seems to be a North Korean specialty, the country has been remarkably compliant. Indeed, if any party has violated the agreement it would be the U.S., which still has not taken promised steps toward normalizing relations. The U.S., however, argues that continued construction of the nuclear reactors will be jeopardized if North Korea doesn’t permit key international inspections; North Korea, for its part, expected more than the construction of supporting infrastructure and the excavation of the foundations to have been completed in seven years. This standoff, like others before, can be peacefully negotiated.

The third problem, mystification, lies at the heart of current U.S. policy toward North Korea. After nearly going to war with North Korea in 1994, the Clinton administration eventually developed level-headed policy goals: first negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for the light-water reactors and normalized relations, then exploring a package deal of aid and technology to freeze North Korea’s missile program. The Bush administration does not have a comparable vision. It wants North Korea to change its behavior but offers few inducements. Washington threatens North Korea with overheated rhetoric but does not spell out the consequences.

Compounding these three problems, the Bush administration’s Asia policy as a whole does little to reassure North Korea. The Pentagon envisions an expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region, not only to eradicate so-called terrorist networks in Indonesia and the Philippines but to maintain U.S. access and control from the “Bay of Bengal to the Sea of Japan.” The current military budget lavishes funds on missile defense, a military boondoggle that glues North Korea, China, and Russia together despite their considerable differences.

In East Asia, the Bush administration has allowed South Korea to expand the range of its tactical missiles—courtesy of Lockheed technology—to strike anywhere on North Korea soil. As critically, the U.S. is encouraging Japan’s military renaissance. Constrained by its Constitution to act only in self-defense, Japan is now pledged to support U.S. operations in the entire Asia-Pacific theater. In the wake of 9/11, Japan is expanding its military on all fronts—acquiring an in-air refueling capacity for long-range bombers, participating in UN peacekeeping missions, providing logistical support for the war in Afghanistan.

A chief aim of Bush’s East Asia trip in February was to consolidate trilateral policy regarding North Korea. From Pyongyang’s perspective, however, this trilateralism resembles encirclement by an ascendant U.S., a remilitarizing Japan, and a growing South Korean military that annually spends as much as North Korea’s entire gross domestic product.

According to Colin Powell, the “ball is in the DPRK’s court.” Labeled “evil,” surrounded by an increasingly aggressive trio of states, and blocked from participating in key international economic institutions, North Korea must be wondering what kind of ball it has been given. Faced with hostility, it will respond with hostility. If the U.S. wants a different response, it will have to hit a different ball into the North Korean court.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

The extremism of the Bush policy on North Korea has worried even foreign policy centrists. Those who previously advocated cautious engagement have now switched into crisis prevention mode. Four former ambassadors to South Korea—two appointed by Republican administrations—were scheduled to visit Pyongyang in an informal effort to break the current logjam, but North Korea cancelled the invitation after Bush’s “axis of evil” remark. Even Bush Sr. has appealed to his son to tread more carefully. Concerns from Republicans and Democrats alike demonstrate that a new bipartisan consensus on North Korea is possible.

Such a new Korea policy would begin by avoiding incendiary language. Pyongyang views its inclusion in an axis of evil as tantamount to a declaration of war. Demonization won’t make negotiations any easier. North Korea can certainly be criticized for its human rights violations and criminal practices such as drug smuggling and counterfeiting. European countries, nearly all of which recently established diplomatic relations with North Korea, are in a position to raise these issues bilaterally. U.S. pronouncements make headlines but don’t change North Korean policy.

The Bush administration can demonstrate its commitment to peace in the region by observing previous agreements. The Agreed Framework, for instance, has promoted unprecedented cooperation between North Korea and its putative adversaries. To acquire the knowledge to run two light-water nuclear reactors, North Korea has sent its officials and technicians to the U.S., Europe, and South Korea. This year, 290 North Korean engineers are scheduled for training visits in the South. The U.S. should acknowledge that the projected five-year delay in construction of the reactors hurts North Korea’s economy. Compensation in the form of energy transfers—or better yet, infrastructure improvements—would help keep the agreement on track.

In October 2000, the U.S. and North Korea signed a joint communique in which they agreed to “take steps to fundamentally improve their bilateral relations.” The Bush administration can restore confidence by returning to the spirit of this agreement and sending a high-level envoy to North Korea to explore ways of addressing both countries’ security concerns. Such an initiative would not only improve bilateral relations but would help revive inter-Korean cooperation.

Under attack by conservatives both inside and outside his country, Kim Dae Jung has been unable to maintain the momentum generated by the historic meeting of the two Korean leaders in June 2000. The latest reunion of families divided by the Korean War has been postponed several times; the inter-Korean railroad link is still unfinished, and fewer South Korean tourists are visiting Mt. Kumkang in the North. True, engagement is far from dead; inter-Korean trade increased by 27% in 2001 to reach nearly half a billion dollars. North Korea has announced that for the first time in fifty years it will open overland routes to South Koreans attending its spring festival. But without U.S. support, the sunshine policy will remain associated with one man and one party rather than blossoming into a suprapartisan effort similar to German Ostpolitik.

If the U.S. wants to keep its hand in the process, it can do so not only through bilateral relations and trilateral coordination but through the Four Party talks. Stalled since 1999, the Four Party talks provide a space in which the U.S., China, and the two Koreas can discuss a formal end to the Korean War and tension reductions in the region.

The U.S. should also take steps to support North Korea’s interest in regional and international organizations. North Korea wants to join such institutions as the World Bank, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. It has accepted training in disarmament from the United Nations and will be permitting a second nutrition survey conducted by the World Food Program and UNICEF. By continuing to block North Korea’s entry into institutions such as the World Bank, the Bush administration is turning its axis-of-evil rhetoric into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

President Bush is not only spurning the Clinton opening regarding North Korea but is even deviating from his father’s policies, which emphasized tension reductions in East Asia. By engaging North Korea and supporting inter-Korean cooperation, the current president still has time to make a Nixonian pivot and secure some small legacy as a peacemaker.

John Feffer is the author of Shock Waves: Eastern Europe After the Revolutions, the editor of the forthcoming Living in Hope: Community Challenges to Globalization (Zed, 2002), and has recently returned from three years based in Tokyo working on East Asian issues.