Disarming North Korea: Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity

According to the State Department, North Korea has once again resumed the disablement of its reactor in Yongbyon, but from all accounts it has not agreed to inspections of its other facilities. Moreover, Pyongyang does not appear willing to discuss the transferring of its nuclear weapon technology to Syria and other nations. Few analysts believe the North Koreans will permit verification of their disarmament promises. Once again, Kim Jong Il’s despicable regime has gotten the better of Washington.

Everybody complains about North Korea, but nobody knows what to do about it. Take the Bush administration, for instance. During the last eight years, the situation in Korea has gone from bad to worse.  Today, the president is obviously incapable of forcing Kim to reverse course and disarm.

Why has Dubya failed? Everyone says the North is intractable. Pyongyang appears that way, but the United States is the most powerful nation in history, and North Korea is one of the weakest. Accordingly, President Bush deserves at least a portion of the blame for the lack of success this decade.

Since 2003, American policy has been based on the assumption that China would persuade its only formal military ally to disarm. True, Beijing has promoted dialogue during this critical period, but it has not been willing to broker an enduring solution. The fundamental problem with America’s policy is that it has been attempting to accomplish two goals at the same time: while trying to disarm the North Koreans, President Bush is also seeking to engage the Chinese. Of these two objectives, the second is evidently considered the more important.

Washington correctly saw that China was in the midst of a fundamental shift in its foreign policy, both shedding its self-image as an outsider and ending its traditional role as an adversary of the existing global order. Yet American diplomats ignored the fact that such transformations take decades and progress only after internal perceptions have shifted over time. Today, China is just not quite ready to act like a responsible great power.

And there was another factor that permitted the Chinese to continue to support their communist cousins in North Korea. Beijing could stand behind Pyongyang because Tokyo and the so-called “progressive” governments in Seoul -- first under Kim Dae Jung and then Roh Moo-hyun -- were doing the same. In short, the Japanese and South Koreans were giving the Chinese cover to do what they wanted to. In short, Washington was being frustrated by its two principal allies in the region.