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.

But the “correlation of forces” in North Asia shifted with both Japan -- two years ago with the elevation of Shinzo Abe as prime minister -- and South Korea -- this February with the inauguration of Lee Myung-bak as president -- adopting tougher positions against the North. Therefore, for the first time ever, Beijing was left alone in its support of the Kim regime. In the past, Beijing has defied Washington when it had company but was almost always cooperative when it did not. Now that China is isolated in its support for the North, the Bush White House is still unwilling to make the country choose between its future -- cooperation with the United States -- and its past -- relations with North Korea. Today, Washington has failed to recognize and capitalize on these favorable regional currents.

And there is one more trend favorable to the United States. At this moment, the North is becoming even more vulnerable. Its economy is in the third year of an economic downturn, its impoverished people face the prospect of another famine, its leader is ailing (evidence that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in August is now “overwhelming”), and its one-man form of government is in doubt as succession to a next-generation Kim is hardly assured. What may be of particular importance are the rumors, circulating in Seoul earlier this year, that wealthy North Koreans were shipping ever-larger amounts of cash to European tax havens, especially Liechtenstein. If true, we may soon be witnessing a new round of regime weakness and instability.

In the past, the Kim family has come to terms with the international community on its nuclear program only when there were problems at home.  For instance, the most important nuclear agreement between the United States and North Korea -- the Agreed Framework -- was signed just three months after the July 1994 death of Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang entered into that arrangement when Kim Jr. had yet to consolidate power -- and when it appeared that North Korea would collapse. After the younger Kim managed to formally assume power and guide the North to relative economic stability, he pushed ahead with his nuclear weapons efforts.

Therefore, this period of internal weakness in North Korea and the changing dynamics in North Asia offer the United States a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change course and, for the first time in history, prevail over the Kimist regime.

But only the most coercive type of diplomacy will work, and the place to start is Beijing. The Chinese need us more than we need them. The stability of the modern Chinese state depends on prosperity, and that prosperity depends on access to American markets and technology. Last year, exports to America accounted for all but US$5.9 billion of China’s overall trade surplus of US$262.2 billion. A weak U.S. economy is the major factor in the disappointing Chinese growth figures announced last Monday.

The next president cannot prevail over North Korea without putting the hard word on Beijing. What can we do to persuade the Chinese to help? We can downgrade relations with China unless it puts real pressure on North Korea to disarm. Specifically, we can end military exchanges that result in transfers of our war-fighting expertise. We can end lucrative port calls in China. We can conduct thorough inspections of Chinese products at our borders. We can end our lax enforcement of China’s trade obligations. We can oppose Chinese territorial ambitions that impinge on traditional notions of international water and airspace. We can support our allies’ territorial claims. We can end the fifty or so bilateral forums that we conduct with China. We can draw closer to India and other nations Beijing fears. We can impose real sanctions for supplying nuclear weapons assistance to Iran. We can threaten China when it commits acts of war against the United States (lasering our satellites, conducting daily cyber attacks, helping North Korea counterfeit our currency, etc.). We can stop our support for Beijing’s membership in international organizations.

We can do all the things a great power can do to make life miserable for potential adversaries. With the Chinese economy showing the first signs of steep recession, the leaders in Beijing should be all ears.