Archive for Thursday, October 23, 2003

U.S. crafting strategy on North Korea

October 23, 2003


— North Korea's Kim Jong Il can claim no more than a temporary and tactical success by having drawn President Bush into talking publicly about possible U.S. security guarantees for North Korea. That's fine by Kim. He'll take temporary and tactical any day.

Kim buys time to survive a little longer, the paramount goal for a regime that seems to perch endlessly on the doorstep of oblivion. He must pray to his Stalinist gods that Napoleon was right when he said that nothing endures like the temporary.

Tactics and strategy form a seamless web of survival for Kim, who runs no risk of mistaking one for the other. He is not buying time to experiment with reform communism or gradually open to the global economy. He is buying time "through the methodical export of strategic insecurity," in the words of scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, in a bid to escape change and outside influence.

As the Bush administration and its diplomatic partners move toward some form of talks with Pyongyang, they must keep in mind the consistency of purpose that underlies Kim's seemingly quixotic nuclear deceit and his Samson-in-the-temple threats of war.

He pursues a single, blood-curdling agenda while Bush and partners try to mesh often-conflicting assessments and styles of diplomacy. If he is not met with a common strategy and resolve, Kim could turn a position of weakness into a long string of temporary and tactical victories.

This represents a serious challenge for the Bush administration, which seems to alternate in foreign policy between tactical and strategic phases -- rather than putting the former consistently at the service of the latter. The State Department does process, the White House and Pentagon do substance, and somehow the twain are supposed to meet. Pursued by questioners at news conferences as he traveled across Asia over the past week, Bush allowed himself to be drawn into the thicket of tactical arguments over the shape of a bargaining table for security talks that so far offer little promise of concrete results.

Should these talks and any nonaggression pact they might produce be one-on-one, as Kim insists, or hexagonal, as Bush demands when he says China, Japan, Russia and South Korea must join the process and underwrite any outcome they produce? This question has plunged the administration -- and its critics -- into ever-deepening debate over tactics.

This debate can be a useful exercise -- if it is connected to a clear strategic understanding of the outcome that is being sought. For the United States and its partners, that outcome must be compatible with a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula in a relatively short time. Otherwise, the talks risk becoming a time-consuming trap that builds up the survivability and the menacing influence of the regime in Pyongyang.

"Credible military menace is now at the heart of North Korea's economic strategy -- and of its very strategy for state survival," Eberstadt wrote in a remarkably prescient 1999 book entitled "The End of North Korea." In it he analyzed Kim's reaction to the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev's reform communism in the Soviet Union and the North Koreans' determination to avoid "ideological and cultural infiltration," which they likened to "an invasion without the sound of gunfire."

Instead of seeking normal commercial relations with the outside world, Pyongyang hopes to extort huge flows of international aid and other official funds by constantly threatening to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. That way Kim will not have to take the economic gamble Gorbachev took and lost.

The Clinton administration's 1994 Framework agreement ostensibly froze North Korea's nuclear weapons program in return for free oil and two atomic reactors. The bet then was that the regime would either soon implode or be forced to open up. Instead, Kim launched a new secret nuclear program to expand his arsenal. He now poses an even greater threat and presumably expects a larger payoff.

Tactically, the administration has been right to insist on including other regional powers in talks with North Korea about security. In his comments in Asia, Bush gave the impression that he is only at the beginning of designing the strategy that must make use of his tactics. He has no time to lose.

Only joint action can succeed in containing Kim's rapacious regime and in defusing its threat. Washington is now obligated to see if the talks it has proposed can produce anything durable that will frustrate Pyongyang's aims, which are as clear as they are mercenary in nature and destabilizing in content.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group,

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