A Rationale for the Bush Administration's North Korea Policy

Jonathan Rauch has an interesting article in the National Journal, defending the Bush administration’s policy towards North Korea.

Basically, he says that the U.S.'s refusal to engage in bilateral talks is not avoidance of a difficult problem, but a conscious strategy to force North Korea’s neighbors to engage in a dialog. He offers some comments from current and former officals in the government supporting this view.

In other words, bilateral talks drop the ball in the U.S.'s lap, and give other countries like China and South Korea cover to disengage. And the North Koreans will continue to escalate demands and break agreements, until war becomes inevitable. The only way out of this is to set up a regional council that unites together and takes on North Korea, and the only way they’ll do that is if the U.S. backs off and forces them to step up to the plate.

So, is this a reasonable policy? Is there a better option?

Note to knee-jerk Bush haters: If you want to dive bomb this thread with another ‘Bush is an idiot’ comment, take it to the pit. Most of the threads in Great Debates these days are turning into train wrecks because of the number of people doing this. So let’s try to keep the debate on a higher plane and discuss the merits, okay?

Couldn’t you use the same argument for the Iraq situation? If NK is a real threat to the US, we should not rely on some indirect “hope someone else takes the lead” strategy. If they are NOT a real threat, then maybe the above strategy is OK.

Who else has a big enough bat to step up to the plate?

The UN: They only care about Iraq right now and its oil.
China: traditional good buddies of NK.
South Korea: Not really. They’re scared as hell with good reason.
Japan: Japan? Weren’t they rude 60 years ago? hmmm… They ARE right next door.
Last time I looked I was surprised how strong the Japanese defense forces were. Is it time for Japan to lead the pacific as a diplomatic/military power as well as economic power? I think it might require a change to their constitution, though I’m not sure about that. Could Japanese forces come to the aid of her ally South Korea in an attack?

I don’t see a regional council working well. The Communist Chinese government is run by absolute monsters… it’s hard to deal with those guys without bribes or threats, they don’t give a damn if millions die.


According to the article, there are already signs of movement from China. Apparently, China, Japan, and South Korea have all issued statements to North Korea that they consider the beginning of fuel reprocessing to be a ‘red line’ they will not tolerate.

I don’t think we’re there yet, but this North Korea problem is very , very difficult.

John Mace: No, I don’t think you can use the same argument against Saddam. For two reasons - first, this is still a very risky strategy, but possibly the least objectional of a bunch of really bad options. Direct intervention in Iraq may be a better choice.

But the real reason why the situations aren’t analogous is that North Korea is desperate, and Saddam wasn’t. North Korea is on the verge of bankruptcy, and so will be forced to talk to someone or start a war. Saddam had his oil money, and could stay in power indefinitely. So there was no reason for him to enter any dialogue with his neighbors at all.


I think the heart of the matter, as I said, is whether or not you believe NK is a direct threat to the US. If so, we should take care of the situation ourselves. I’m not sure if they are, but I think they are as much if not more of a danger to the US than Iraq. I could see terrrorist getting WMD (as much as I hate that term) from NK easier than from Iraq. NK is a true rogue state and Kim is probably crazier than Saddam. We’ve got a much better handle of what’s going on in Iraq than we do in NK.

At any rate, I would suspect that once the Iraq situation is reasonbale stable, NK will get much more attention from us. If China et al take care of things before that, great. I wouldn’t count on it.

When someone insists that just you and them play. Does it help matters by inviting others to play?

Expositions similar to Rauch’s have been floating through cyberspace for months, and on the surface at least, it’s not a bad plan. The trouble is in putting sufficient diplomatic pressure on China to force its involvement. Holding up Beijing’s most favored nation status is an overused stick, China does not want to be perceived asa lapdog of Japan or the U.S. Even if a regional council were formed, the amount of pressure it could bring to bear on the people’s republic is arguable. As these CIA figures for North Korean trade in 2002 show, there isn’t a lot of room for sanctions to have anything less than a catastrophic effect on the North Koreans:

North Korea per se isn’t worth much to anyone, so if the multilateral approach is ever going to work, the US has got to come up with a better carrot to attract allies.

I agree with you that the problem is finding enough self-interest on China’s part to engage is the real problem.

One of the obvious ways is to show China that North Korea’s actions will wind up causing Japan and South Korea to arm themselves with nukes, and I don’t know that China wants three antagonistic neighbors armed with nuclear weapons.

But even that may be a hollow threat, because China may just decide that having a couple of stable democracies in its neighborhood with nukes is not a bad thing.

But, as the administration official said, there is still some time left for diplomacy, so this is worth a try.

I have already explained the problems with this strategy on another thread. In brief this issue is too important to leave it to the Chinese and others. Secondly by naming North Korea in the axis of evil Bush put the US at the heart of the problem. There won’t be a diplomatic solution unless North Korea feels secure from a US attack. Finally even in the best case scenario (highly unlikely) of the Chinese and other solving this problem after the US backs off, US credibility in the region will be damaged and China will be strengthened.

As an aside, I just heard over the weekend the comment made, can’t recall by whom, that the U.S. should leave the U.N. out of war from now on, as they are apparently incapable of actually resolving them. Cases in point: Korea, Iraq, Balkans. Two initiated under U.N. sanction and they’re still problems, and the Balkans required extra-U.N. action to end the conflicts.

Anyway, back to the OP. I have to say Bush has the right idea on North Korea, at least for now. If the solution were as simple as friendly bilateral negotiations, Clinton’s/Carter’s '94 efforts would still be in force. Kim Jung Il didn’t just wake up one morning, find himself described as a founding member of the “Axis of Evil” and decide to renew efforts to acquire nuclear capability, did he? It also makes no sense to me that the very same people demanding endless negotiations with Saddam insist, without taking a breath, that the U.S. play pattycake with NK all alone. Funny how the neighbors with the most to lose, militarily stronger and more economically vibrant, are the ones seeking cover over NK. The real problem with NK is that there are no good options. If in fact NK does already possess nuclear warheads(and it seems the consensus is they have one or two), and ballistic missiles for delivery, military action is essentially off the table. So. Do we accept nuclear blackmail from Kim? Do we let the neighborhood blame us for any failure to secure a lasting peaceful resolution(assuming one is even possible)? Seems to me we’re being set up by our so-called allies in the region. I don’t see much in the way of strong support for our position. With the exception of Japan, everything I’ve heard seems to indicate that the neighbors of NK want the U.S. to bear the costs of any resolution, the brunt of the abuse from NK, the blame for NK going off half-cocked, and the loss of international standing if war does indeed become inevitable at any point. A truly classic lose-lose position for us.

Oh, and CyberPundit, removing the stick will not increase the odds of the carrot being effective with NK. If NK had ever had any intention of adhering to bilateral agreements, the regime-friendly Clinton years would have been that time.

I am getting tired of repeating this again and again. But North Korea did freeze its plutonium-based nuclear facilities (which are much more dangerous) although it cheated by building uraniumn based facilities.

But now it’s cheating on BOTH. This is NOT an improvement. Bush has made a bad situation much worse. So the Clinton deal wasn’t wholly successful but it’s sure better than what’s happened in the last 6 months.

Oh and no one is talking about removing the stick. I think that the option to bomb Yongbyon shouldn’t be taken off the table. Clinton didn’t do this but for some strange reason Bush ,more or less, ruled it out for a while.

Why should the PRC give two hoots when the whole mess is yet another find bit of GWB’s handiwork?

CyberPundit, it isn’t really bush’s fault at all. Kim Jong Il decided to cheat on his own. I don’t believe Bush did anything to tick KJI off.

I think that our policy toward NK at the moment is the best option that we have for now. We still have things to deal with in Iraq, Afganistan, and from the looks of it, maybe even Israel. Also, I agree with NaSultainne in that the neighboring countries want us do deal with the crap for them. We should let them handle it for now, but not to a point of being isolationist.

best thing I’ve ever heard in the GD forum.

“I don’t believe Bush did anything to tick KJI off.”
I see. So naming North Korea as part of the axis of evil while at the same time preparing to fight a war against Iraq wasn’t in the least bit threatening to North Korea?

“We still have things to deal with in Iraq, Afganistan, and from the looks of it, maybe even Israel.”
You seem to be under the impression that North Korea is just some other foreign policy problem. On the contrary it’s the most important threat to US national security since the end of the Cold War. If North Korea starts producing nukes by the dozen it’s only a matter of time before it tries to sell them to the highest bidder both terrorists and countries. Not to mention the effect it will have on the nuclear policies of other countries in East Asia. It will be bye-bye nuclear non-proliferation.

I think we put that label on him AFTER he started up the nukular plants and defied U.N. resolutions (which are losing credibility fast, might I add). I think that’s reason enough to label him on the Axis of Evil.

You raise a good point here. Good job. HOWEVER, I think that because war in Iraq will be so short, we can afford to use this policy for now. I’m pretty sure it will change once Saddam is ousted.

North Korea hasn’t defied any UNSC resolutions. In any case the point is that the Bush rhetoric was seriously threatening to North Korea. They reacted by accelerating their nuclear weapons production. Iran may be doing the same thing. Thus the axis of evil speech has proved completely counter-productive just as predicted at the time.

wowie, such quick replies!!

meh, maybe I’m ignorant on the whole thing. I better do some reading after my wisdom teeth get yanked today. You win, for now.

Be sure to ask for the BIG pills. Morphine has an excellent reputation for taking the edge off of unpleasant realities.:smiley:

I am sure it was. But that has bugger-all to do with North Korea cheating on its commitment not to develop nukes to use to threaten South Korea and Japan, which they were doing long before Bush took office.

Labelling NK as part of the “axis of evil” is a result of NK’s bad actions, not its cause.

Tell it to your compatriots on the left, who are having hissy fits because Bush sees exactly the same situation in Iraq.

Keeping in mind that no one claims a link between al-Queda and NK, and still it is clear that they present a threat to the world. Because they could arm and support international terrorism. Just like Iraq, and for most of the same reasons.

Except that the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese are shocked - shocked, I tell you! - that the US is acting without their cooperation to deal with Iraq, but the same nations want nothing to do with the mess in North Korea.

We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. If we act against a threat before it is too late, the Axis of Weasel screams “Pre-emptive war!” If we try to enlist their help to act together before it’s too late, they want no part of it.