Along the Tracks

Friday, January 10, 2003

Korean peninsula history, revised

At National Review Online, Frank Gaffney has a sharp critique of the Democratic revisionism going on with regards to North Korea. No Democrat ever wants to see Bill Clinton blamed for anything, but this effort to change goals and timelines after the fact is just absurd.

No one wanted war with North Korea in 1994, just as no one wants it today. And in fact, the situations were very similar - North Korea had (and has), perhaps, two nukes already, so any war would be costly. Okay, said Clinton, let’s negotiate, but maintain the plausible threat of war if NK stays on this road. So far, so good. The agreement was reached, but without any plans to remove nuclear material, without any larger verifiability, and without any stated consequences for breaking the “framework.”

The Clinton administration knew the North was walking all over the agreement - that’s why it delayed construction of the two light-water reactors that were supposed to be built by America and her allies. Rather than pressing the issue more firmly when the breaches began, Clinton went the opposite direction, seeking a big publicity summit with Kim Jong Il, sending Secretary of State Albright over to toast the mass-murdering dictator, and developing a new, larger agreement which totally ignored NK’s transgression of the last one.

So, in comes Bush. He sees all the intelligence, realizes there are serious problems, and decides to review North Korea policy. Meanwhile, relations with the Chinese sour when one their pilots clips and crashes a U.S. spy plane over international waters - a key event (largely ignored in present criticisms) which took the most effective tool in moderating NK behavior (Chinese influence) off the table. U.S. servicemen and women held hostage trumped any backchannel efforts on NK. Relations with China didn’t really improve until after 9/11 - which understandably overwhelmed foreign policy for the next nine months. People seem to forget, it was only last summer when a) Iraq came to the forefront of discussion, b) the White House began to lay out its Israel-Palestine policy of PA reform and the sidelining of Arafat, c) the U.S. officially pulled out of the ABM treaty, and d) the administration fully implemented its own North Korea policy. The War on Terrorism was all-consuming prior to that point, resulting in some diplomatic “kick-the-can” for more than half a year.

The critics may have a point in arguing this “tunnel vision” led to the crisis with Kim - but it’s their responsibility to show how. Would resources used in securing foreign bases, overflight rights, intelligence, financial investigations and asset freezing, immigration and visitor background check assistance, etc., for the War on Terrorism have been better spent working the North Korea problem with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, and contacts with the North? Should the Clinton track of negotiations been continued, ignoring NK’s development of a uranium enrichment program? If we had followed the Clinton path and pointed to the enrichment program as an impasse, what reason is there to believe NK would have followed a different course than it is presently on? Didn’t the Bush administrations “delay” of the North Korea issue actually “delay” this crisis - perhaps not long enough for some critics, but far better than having it all come to the fore in, say, October 2001?

I do believe there is plenty to criticize about U.S. policy toward North Korea, stretching back through at least three administrations. But based on the starting point Clinton handed to Bush, it’s hard to see how any choice would have avoided this showdown - without an absolute appeasement by allowing Kim to maintain his uranium enrichment program.

Bush is trying to stretch this out a little farther once again - past the liberation of Iraq. It’s hard to say whether Kim will play along or spark a second front in the war. I’m losing hope that this can be resolved peacefully; I fear our delays have already emboldened Kim to the point he feels free to make six quick plutonium nukes out of the rods sealed as part of the 1994 agreement. That is where my biggest criticism of the Bush policy lands: We should have either waited to play “gotcha” on the enrichment program until after the Iraq war, or made NK priority number one with the wrap-up of Afghanistan - something difficult to do, considering Saddam’s connections to terrorism. Ultimately, there are - and never were - any good choices for this White House, just “least bad” ones.

P.S. - How can Joe Lieberman say North Korea “kept (the) central part” of the 1994 agreement, publicly, if slyly blaming Bush and the U.S. for breaking it - and still expect to get votes as a candidate for president? I’ve generally found Lieberman to be one of my favorite Democrats, someone for whom I could punch the card, but he has just eliminated himself in my book.

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