June 11, 2005

Objectively Pro-Appeasement

More kabuki dancing around North Korea's nukes yesterday, as George Bush met with South Korean President Roo Muh Hyun and... didn't seem to get anywhere. Bush, not surprisingly, is tired of negotiating with himself:
As Mr. Roh was arriving in Washington, one senior White House official involved in preparations said the North "has gotten us to bid against ourselves two or three times." Now, he said, "the question is how long do you let this go without there being a consequence?"
Okay, fair enough. The White House doesn't like making concessions and isn't too thrilled with being jerked around by Kim Jong Il. What no one seems to grasp is that the United States simply isn't in a strong position here. It's tough, perhaps, for an American president to grasp—that all our power can't bail us out of this one—but the U.S. is holding onto the short end of the lever. According to the Times, for instance, Bush apparently gave Roh his assurance that he wouldn't attack North Korea, taking a major option off the table. In many ways, though, that's wise: in the Atlantic Monthly's recent war game scenario, the most optimistic assessment of a strike against North Korea was one that left maybe 100,000 South Koreans dead. Again: that's the best case. 100,000 dead—that's a September 11 every week for nearly a year—would count as a rousing success. And to neutralize North Korea enough to get to that point, we would need to fly 4,000 air sorties a day in the first few days of war. 800 a day was the rate in Iraq.

Meanwhile, sanctions seem to be off the table, and at any rate, neither South Korea nor China has any intention of using sanctions to dig holes underneath Pyongang's already-wobbly foundation, out of fear that the country will collapse and millions of starving, uncouth refugees will come pouring across the border. Indeed, as Joshua Kurlantzick pointed out in the New Republic, China seems to benefit more from the appearance of helping out than from actually helping to resolve the crisis. Meanwhile, no one seems to be talking about the fact that an implosion of North Korea could be an even greater security threat to the United States than what we have now: who's going to secure all those chemical weapons, and the nukes, in the ensuing chaos? Think the U.S. and South Korea can rush across the border and keep everything out of the hands of any and all unsavory characters? Really? Are we sure?

It really does seem like Kim Jong Il holds all the cards here, and while obviously the president himself can't (and shouldn't) acknowledge that public, I would hope he's acknowledging it privately. It sucks, because Kim Jong Il's a tinpot dictator, with bad hair, and a creepy smile, but never mind all that. Look at what's in his hand. Cards. Lots of them. Most of them. Under the circumstances, the U.S. doesn't have the luxury of jerking North Korea around, or standing tough and putting the onus on Kim Jong Il to make the next move.

At the very least, the White House ought to be pushing the diplomatic channel as far as it will go. That means making more concessions. We could, for instance, offer to sign a treaty ending the Korean War. That's not a big deal to us. No one in this country is confused about whether or not we're still fighting the Korean War. But it could be a big deal to North Korea. And after that, we may have to offer even more than we want to offer. That's what happens when you're in a weak position. The so-called "hardliners" in the administration refuse to recognize this and, it seems, were getting antsy over the possibility that the State Department might have been implicitly offering guarantees during the Six-Party talks. (Bizarrely, U.S. officials were never allowed to put forward actual negotiating positions during those talks, which led, predictably, to nothing getting done.)

Of course concessions may not work. We may end up with the sort of deal that North Korea cheats on—although it's worth noting that this view tends to be colored by the idea that North Korea was the only country to cheat on the 1994 Agreed Framework; they weren't, the United States actually welched first—and in the end, an attack might be the only viable option left. But we should at least be finding out whether we've pushed diplomacy as far as it can possibly go. Is that appeasement? Of course! That's what you do when you're not willing to take any of the other alternatives. We appeased the Soviet Union again and again during the Cold War, and they cheated on many of those deals, but as Robert Galluci said in the Atlantic piece, "we were still better off with the deal than without it." Or, to quote a more apt Galluci-ism: "What's your fucking plan, then, if you don't like this?"

update: See also Selig Harrison's Washington Post op-ed.
-- Brad Plumer 1:48 PM || ||