March 20, 2005

What Next for North Korea?

Quick quiz: Whenever you find yourself trying to defuse a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, do you find it most helpful to a) gain the trust of all parties involved, or b) lie to your allies? As a bonus, guess which one the Bush administration would prefer! Today in the Post, Dafna Linzer catches the White House squarely in the act of lying: "In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. . . But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction." Morons, all of them. But there's a more pressing question here: what does all this mean for the future of North Korea?

Cheryl Rofer has the backstory here, but basically, over the last few months South Korea and China have found the "six-party talks" with North Korea useless (which they are), and instead wanted to continue their engagement policy with Kim Jong Il. The White House freaked out and concocted a little tale about NK crossing the ultimate "rogue state" red line and selling nuke material to Libya, so as to get SK and China back into the talks with renewed vigor. As it turns out, though, our little ally Pakistan was peddling the nuclear material, not North Korea. (No one of course is talking about regime change in Pakistan, and with good reason!)

Anyway, the conventional take on all this is that such lies will hurt U.S. credibility on future intelligence issues. That's an issue, I think, though it's slightly overblown. The claims about nuke sales to Libya were suspect from the start—lots of experts could see that, the IAEA could see that, and China and South Korea could both see that—and none of the doubts depended on how credible they considered the White House to be.

Very rarely, it seems, does any country simply "trust" another country's intelligence. On the campaign trail, John Kerry told that story about how John F. Kennedy's word alone was good enough to convince De Gaulle that Cuba was harboring missiles. But the story is mostly bullshit. If De Gaulle had actually had serious reservations about responding to Cuba, of course he would've needed to see pictures and proof that the missiles existed. But he didn't care, so it was all moot. Conversely, if the U.S. ever truly has credible evidence that X danger exists, it shouldn't be difficult to share that evidence and whip people into action. For better or worse, the U.S. can still get a lot accomplished with shoddy credibility.

But that's not the main point. At least as far as North Korea's concerned, it's now increasingly clear to everyone involved that the U.S. has no interest in pursuing engagement, regardless of the facts. Now there are reasons to think neither China nor South Korea want to confront North Korea if they don't have to—that is, so long as NK's not doing anything particularly flagrant like selling nuclear material to other countries. Mainly, this is because neither China nor South Korea wants NK to collapse all of a sudden—the resulting economic mess would be disastrous. To avert that scenario, then, both countries have tried to promote economic development and the joys of capitalism in North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Zone looks like an early success, and Kim Jong Il has more or less approved of its construction, though the U.S. hates it for rather weird and baseless reasons.

Now, my original guess was that U.S. policy towards North Korea in Bush's second term was going to run along the following lines: The White House would continue to pursue those largely useless six-party talks, rattle the saber at North Korea from time to time, offer some half-baked incentives, and generally just get everyone semi-riled-up over Kim Jong Il. But it would essentially be a weak half-measure. The real action would take place elsewhere—with bills like the North Korea Human Rights Act (which many suspect to be a shell game for regime change), by aiding groups working to destabilize North Korea from within, by funding dissidents, and generally just working to keep South Korea and China away from engaging economically with Kim Jong Il.

All of the sudden, however, that may have all changed. In the past, so long as China and South Korea could believe that the U.S. was committed to defusing the North Korea crisis through negotiations, they would all sit down for the six-party talk charade and jabber away uselessly, exactly as the Bush administration wanted. But as it's now clear that the U.S. isn't at all serious about engaging North Korea, and is just pursuing a policy of "Please for the love of god don't help Kim Jong Il carry out economic reforms!", well, it's difficult to see why South Korea and China should take the talks seriously. Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao's comments on the subject today were virtually meaningless. (I could be wrong about this, but the safe bet's on more foot-dragging.)

So that means more engagement from the Asian neighbors and less U.S. involvement is likely in the future, it seems. I haven't decided whether that's an improvement over the current policy or not—it all depends no how malignant you think North Korea truly is. I guess we'll see.

Continue reading "What Next for North Korea?"
-- Brad Plumer 7:25 PM || ||