The North Korea Conundrum

We have it. The smoking gun. The evidence. The potential weapon of mass destruction we have been looking for as our pretext of invading Iraq. There’s just one problem – it’s in North Korea. –Jon Stewart

American media and politicians too often seem to share a commitment to forget some of the past and skip some of the possible consequences of policies when discussing an issue as serious and difficult as North Korea.  And the fact that the N. Korea issue is almost always described in narrow American terms adds to the difficulty of building support for addressing North Korea in any way but the tried and failed ways of the past.

For years America has been waiting for the N. Korean regime to collapse but it hangs on, starving its people, harassing its neighbors to the South and currying favor with nations like Iran seeking their weapons technology.  And while sanctions have done some damage they have not to date influenced significant positive change and there is no evidence that more sanctions will do much more. The six-party talks, with six countries holding six separate sets of interests, are similarly unlikely to produce positive change.

In this environment analysts on the right view attempts at diplomacy as “rewarding” N. Korea’s bad behavior and seriously discuss military options available to the U.S. While these options vary from analyst to analyst they all downplay the risk to the ten million inhabitants of Seoul. It is not comforting to read some of these analyses when a common thread is that as long as the risk is mostly to millions of South Koreans and only 15000 or so Americans military adventure is worth considering. 22 million S. Koreans live within 40 miles of Seoul, which is 35 miles from the N. Korean border.  N. Korea has over 500 long-range artillery tubes along the border and an army of over a million. The devastation of a military action would be incalculable. The fact that some would seriously consider initiating military action after our costly, deadly and largely counter-productive Iraq fiasco is bizarre, but scary.

The history of U.S. – N. Korean engagement does not provide much hope for the future. Agreements have emerged from time to time only to be broken by the North Koreans and/or treated to a kind of passive aggressive approach by the U.S.  KEDO, (The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) was the last such major effort and it failed largely because the N. Koreans reneged on their part of the agreement. At the same time, the U.S.‘s commitment was less then total, largely due to a lack of trust and the influence of domestic politics in the U.S. which led to KEDO becoming a kind of orphan in American foreign policy.

The diplomatic option is a very tough pill to swallow. The N. Koreans have behaved outrageously and it is difficult – perhaps not possible – for Americans to accept that as difficult as it is, it may remain the United States’ best possibility to influence the regime. Those who would force the issue towards military action risk a far worse mistake than even the Iraq War. Former CIA official, National Security Advisor to Vice President George H.W. Bush, and U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 Donald Gregg in the Washington Post in 2006 summed up a realistic view of U.S. diplomatic attention as a “reward”:

“Why won’t the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with [North Korea], as the Brits (and eventually the US) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country’s good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behavior of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hizballah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends — a huge mistake.”

Gregg’s words provide a sensible backdrop as the Obama administration continues to weigh costs and benefits of its choices in dealing with a rogue nation. Attack or talk?

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