New Deal: On North Korea, the U.S. Needs an Alternative to the Hawks’ Belligerent Rhetoric

The New Republic
December 22, 2003

It was a perfect day for a provocation. In late August, Norbert Vollertsen, a German human rights activist, traveled in a chartered bus from Seoul to Cholwon, just a few miles from the border with North Korea. His mission was simple: to launch a flock of hot air balloons, each bearing a small cargo of radios, that the day’s brisk wind would carry into the North, where everyone but the elite is deprived of radios that would enable them to listen to foreign broadcasts.

In addition to the balloons, the bus contained roughly a dozen journalists. Vollertsen knew that publicity would be as important as action, if not more so: The felling of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship in the North may ultimately depend less on North Koreans, who are quite possibly the most repressed people on earth, than on foreign governments that could, if they wished, destabilize his regime.

South Korea is not such a country, to say the least. Its government is now presided over by a new generation that wishes to work with North Korea’s dictator rather than provoke or topple him. Several years ago, when this “Sunshine Policy” was begun by then-President Kim Dae Jung, the South ceased its propaganda broadcasts across the border. The South Korean government is now not only reluctant to displease its Northern counterpart; it doesn’t want anyone else to do so, either.

So it was that Vollertsen’s bus was stopped at a roadblock made up of more than 50 policemen in full riot regalia. The provincial police chief told Vollertsen that he would not be permitted to launch his balloons; when the activist tried to inflate one anyway, policemen wrestled him to the ground, injuring his knee. Writhing in pain, Vollertsen was whisked away in an ambulance. Several days later, he showed up in Taejon, where a group of North Korean athletes was participating in a sports festival. On crutches, wearing a neck brace and a knee brace, he led a peaceful protest outside the press center–peaceful, that is, until he was assaulted by North Korean reporters. The next day, after the North Korean government complained about Vollertsen’s protest, the South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, apologized. Apparently, it did not occur to Roh, or to anyone in the South Korean government, that perhaps the North Koreans should do the apologizing.

At least the South Korean government has a policy toward the North, albeit one that is shameful. The United States does not even have a policy. Due to a conflict between hard-liners who want to topple Kim Jong Il as quickly as possible and moderates who wish to give him a chance to swap his nuclear program for aid, the White House is paralyzed (see Joshua Kurlantzick, “Look Away,” December 15). Each side in the internal debate has a correct goal and an incorrect strategy. The hawks, in their eagerness to remove Kim, are willing to risk a horrific war; the doves, in their desperation to avoid war, risk bolstering Kim’s horrid regime. Neither admits that a third option exists: to squeeze Kim while constraining the risks of war and proliferation. This option requires three elements: First, a campaign to use every diplomatic and intelligence lever to contain the North’s nuclear ambitions; second, the resolve to discourage efforts by Seoul and Beijing to provide an economic lifeline to Kim; and, third, the restraint to not use inflammatory rhetoric that could incite Pyongyang and lead to war.

The starting point for determining the correct policy should be human rights, of which there are essentially none above the thirty-eighth parallel. Kim’s regime is not just another repressive dictatorship with which we can do business while holding our noses. Testimonies from defectors and refugees paint a picture of a house of horrors. In the 1990s, North Korea suffered a famine that killed two million people or more. These deaths could have been avoided if the government had allowed foreign donors to deliver food; instead, the regime resisted, fearful of outsiders learning the true extent of the famine and the repression. Belatedly, some food was accepted after aid agencies agreed to leave distribution in the government’s hands; as a result, according to defectors, military and political elites were fed while ordinary citizens continued to die.

That’s not the worst of it. The North Korean regime operates a network of prison and labor camps, with several hundred thousand incarcerated. Inmates are starved and, quite often, executed. In late October, an advocacy group called the U.S. Committee for Human Rights, in North Korea released a report that included satellite images of the camps. The report is devastating, showing massive gulags spread over large swaths of territory and using testimony from North Korean refugees to highlight gruesome abuses at the camps. As Anne Applebaum, author of an acclaimed book about Josef Stalin’s prisons in the Soviet Union, wrote in The Washington Post, “If any of the democratic participants [involved in multilateral talks with North Korea] were to absorb fully the information the images convey, the knowledge would make it impossible for that country to conduct any policy toward North Korea that did not make regime change its central tenet.” Applebaum is right: Regime change must drive policy.

Engagers in Washington, and to a lesser extent in Seoul, say they are as eager as the hawks to see Kim removed, and they believe engaging his country will infect it with forces that will weaken his grip on power. In the long term, they might be correct. But the long term may be ten or 20 years away. In the short term, foreign aid will strengthen Kim’s hold on power by giving him the resources he needs–food, fuel, money–to retain the loyalty of his political and military elites. In the past decade, several billion dollars of aid and investment from the United States, South Korea, and Japan have been funneled into North Korea, but this has not led to improvements in the political or economic situation. If this trend continues, thousands of North Koreans (or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands) will perish until age or something else catches up with Kim.

The doves argue that only through engagement can North Korea be prevented from continuing its nuclear weapons program and perhaps exporting bombs or bomb-making know-how to rogue states or terrorist groups. A decade ago, the CIA estimated that Kim’s regime might have enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb or two. His government announced last year that it had begun reprocessing the spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor–which, experts believe, might provide enough weapons-grade plutonium for as many as 20 devices. Ten years ago, North Korea also provided missile technology to Pakistan in exchange for information about building nuclear weapons. And, in 1999, North Korea reportedly agreed to provide missiles to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions. (The missiles were never delivered.)

The problem, however, is that the United States has tried and failed to buy off Kim’s nuclear program before. In 1994, with Pyongyang beginning to reprocess plutonium rods at the Yongbyon reactor, the Clinton administration, along with South Korea and Japan, reached an accord, known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea would freeze its weapons program in exchange for shipments of fuel oil and the construction of two lightwater reactors, which would run on plutonium that cannot be reprocessed into weapons-grade matériel. That agreement fell apart last year when North Korea announced that, in spite of the agreement, it had secretly continued a uranium-enrichment program. Today, the odds that North Korea would keep its word under a new agreement are longer than before. One of the reasons North Korea has a nuclear program is because it believes the weapons ensure it will not be attacked by the United States. The Clinton administration was not nearly as hawkish as this White House, yet, even then, Kim hedged his bets. Now, with an administration that has invaded two countries since September 11, 2001, and has put North Korea in the “axis of evil,” Kim has far greater reason to feel threatened. In recent months, while working on a lengthy profile of Kim for The New York Times Magazine, I talked with dozens of security experts, and almost all of them agreed that Kim would not only be unlikely to fully dismantle his nuclear program but unwise to do so. What leader of a small country, faced with a potentially hostile and far larger enemy, would unilaterally disarm?

Still, anyone who opposes offering carrots to North Korea has to address the proliferation concerns. If the White House can’t sweet-talk Kim out of his nukes, what can it do to prevent him from making mischief with them? In May, the Bush administration launched a promising new effort, called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), aimed at working with allies to interdict the flow of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the matériel needed to make them. PSI is supported by hard-liners–including Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton–but, if history is any guide, their support is not rock-hard. In Iraq, the hawks believed containment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs (to the extent they existed) was not a matter that could be left to inspections or surveillance; only changing the regime, by force, would eradicate the problem.

And, even as the hawks voice support for PSI, their inflammatory rhetoric makes it less likely that it will be successful. On July 31, for example, Bolton delivered a speech in Seoul in which he mentioned Kim in less than flattering terms more than 40 times. The North Korean government responded by describing Bolton as “human scum” and demanding that he not participate in further negotiations. (Bolton was not speaking out of turn; President Bush has described Kim as “a pygmy” whom he “loathed.”) Satisfying as it might be, waging a rhetorical war on Kim does not further the cause of getting rid of him. It only ramps up tensions to the extent that a miscalculation by either side could lead to armed hostilities. Some hawks might not mind that, but a military conflict would be disastrous even if it fell short of a nuclear exchange. The North Koreans have thousands of artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, and Japan is within range of their missiles–as might be Hawaii and Alaska.

What is needed, in other words, is an alternative to the hawks’ belligerent rhetoric and the doves’ too-optimistic engagement. PSI’s strategy of containment, pursued tactfully and not merely as a pretext for escalating tensions with North Korea, is America’s best bet. Containment worked in Iraq, after all: WMD have yet to be found there. Of course, one of the reasons Saddam did not (apparently) carry out a serious WMD program in the ’90s is that he had agreed to U.N. inspections, something it is hard to imagine Kim ever doing. So, without inspections in North Korea, what hope is there of containing the Dear Leader’s nuclear ambitions, PSI or no PSI?

While it is probably already too late to prevent Kim from building one or more nuclear bombs, it may be possible to prevent North Korea from exporting the weapons or related technology. A virtue of North Korea’s status as a hermit kingdom is that its borders are not porous. Intensifying surveillance and intercepting objectionable shipments are not impossible tasks. The southern border, with South Korea, is essentially hermetically sealed. The northern border with Russia is very short. And, while the border with China sees considerable traffic, it is closely watched by Chinese authorities. Neither China nor Russia wishes to see Kim augment his nuclear arsenal or export it, so, with discreet yet firm prodding from the United States, they should find it in their interests to tighten border surveillance. Ocean traffic, which is sparse, can be tracked through spy satellites and other intelligence-gathering means.

Getting Beijing on board is particularly important because China is the key to destabilizing Kim’s regime. China props up the dictator by delivering food and oil supplies that keep his anemic state alive. Chinese leaders do not do this because they are enamored with Kim. (He is, in his Stalinist ways, an embarrassment to their modernizing image, and they are almost as upset with his nuclear program as the Americans are.) The Chinese bolster Kim because he is preferable to what they perceive as the alternatives–an implosion of his regime that could lead to chaos, a horde of refugees, and/or the unification of Korea under a pro-U.S. government led by South Koreans.

But the Chinese have it wrong, and they need to understand this. China’s economic and political relations with South Korea are excellent–better, in fact, than America’s. China recently surpassed the United States as South Korea’s largest trading partner. The young generation that now leads South Korea is deeply anti-American but likes China enormously. In the long term then, a unified Korea might actually be more pro-China than pro-America. Under this scenario, China would have on its border an economic tiger that could provide another spark to its own economy. American officials should further assure Beijing that American troops would not remain in a unified Korea. Of course, some in Washington would not want this: The troops are a projection of U.S. power and their withdrawal would diminish U.S. influence in Asia. But, whether we like it or not, it is historically inevitable that, whenever Kim goes, China will re-inherit its considerable historical influence over the entire Korean peninsula.

Wooing China as an ally against Kim’s regime is now being talked about in influential conservative circles. A few weeks ago, I met a prominent conservative Republican who has direct input into the formulation of the Bush team’s foreign policies. He said the White House should use all its influence with China to bring North Korea to the top of Sino-U.S. relations. This means, he told me, warning of trade losses if China refuses to do the right thing. Of course, the U.S. business lobby would howl, but this Republican argues the administration should put its money where its mouth is–if nuclear proliferation is crucial to national security, then the prospect of Boeing not selling a few 747s to Air China should not stand in the way.

What would we want the Chinese to do? They could tighten or halt food and oil shipments into North Korea or let more refugees escape into China, undermining Kim’s regime just as East Germans fleeing through Hungary in 1989 undermined Erich Honecker’s East German dictatorship. This may be too much to expect, but China already cut off fuel supplies to the North once, earlier this year, possibly to pressure Pyongyang. China might even be prevailed upon to use its leverage to force North Korea to agree to nuclear inspections without the generous payoffs Kim would ordinarily demand.

Pressuring China cannot be done by shouting or stomping one’s feet: Hard-liners must contain their warlike rhetoric. What’s needed is understated aggression. This is a job for a more aggressive Colin Powell, not Bolton or Donald Rumsfeld. Zealots may have the right goal, but the diplomats are the right people to carry it out. Zealous diplomacy–that would be a welcome first.

Beyond China, the United States can take steps to support outside groups committed to regime change in Pyongyang. The North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, introduced in the Senate by Sam Brownback, is a good start; it would allow North Korean refugees and defectors to settle in the United States and provide funding for a range of programs and initiatives, such as radio broadcasting into the North. The White House could lean on Seoul to let Vollertsen launch his balloons and support a panoply of other nonviolent operations that activists based in South Korea are trying to carry out. U.S. funds could be made available through third-party channels so human rights activists could infiltrate North Korea’s airwaves with opposition broadcasts, so citizens of the North wake up to news feeds from outside their penal colony.

Moderates in Washington and Seoul are cautious about forcing an endgame with Kim because they fear a suicidal doomsday in which North Korea would attack South Korea. These fears are exaggerated. Yes, there would be turmoil if Kim’s regime falls apart, but the chaos would fall far short of doomsday. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, worst-case scenarios of post-totalitarian turmoil were not realized. Tyrannies are toppled when they are weak–too weak to get revenge if revenge is on their minds. Kim Jong Il is neither insane nor suicidal. He is very pragmatic. At the moment, oppression and nukes are logical tools for him. If his regime begins falling, he is most likely to continue acting pragmatically, which in his case would mean trying to get out alive.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.