Isolate North Korea?

 North Korea's bombshell admission of developing a secret nuclear arms program through uranium enrichment has once again made Pyongyang's truculence front-page news.


North Korea's bombshell admission of developing a secret nuclear arms program through uranium enrichment has once again made Pyongyang's truculence front-page news. Over the past two weeks, a debate has raged inside the U.S. government and among outside experts about how to respond. Many moderates have argued that this new nuclear confession is revealing of Pyongyang's true intentions, representing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's perverse, but typical, way of creating a crisis to pull a reluctant Bush Administration into serious dialogue.

Before the world accepts the "cry for help" thesis, however, the North's confession must be seen for what it is-a serious violation of a standing agreement that, in effect, may turn out to be North Korea's last gambit at peaceful engagement with the United States and its allies.

North Korea's actions constitute a blatant violation of the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework designed to ensure denuclearization of the North. Those who try to make a technical, legal argument to the contrary are patently wrong. Although the Agreed Framework dealt specifically with the plutonium reprocessing facilities at Yongbyon, this document was cross-referenced with the 1991-1992 North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, that banned either Korea from constructing uranium-enrichment facilities of the type now found to be covertly operating in the North.

Moreover, the implications of this act extend beyond a violation of U.S.-DPRK bilateral confidences. Arguably all of the improvements in North-South relations-including the June 2000 summit, breakthroughs in Japan-North Korea relations in 2001, and the wave of engagement with the reclusive regime that spread across Europe in 2000-2001-were made possible by what was perceived to be the North's good-faith intentions to comply with a major non-proliferation commitment with the United States. The subtext of this commitment was that the North was willing to trade an end to its nuclear proliferation threat for a path of reform and peaceful integration into the world community. The subsequent diplomatic advances achieved by Pyongyang, therefore, would not have been possible without the Agreed Framework. And now the North has shown it all to be a lie.

Apologists respond that aggressive language and "axis of evil" statements used by the United States compel the Pyongyang regime's misbehavior. Semantics matter, but actions matter more. The problem is not what the United States, South Korea or Japan may have done wrong. The problem is North Korea. If anything, what is most revealing about the North's actions is that hawkish skepticism vis-à-vis a real change in Kim Jong-il's underlying intentions, despite behavior and rhetoric to the contrary, remains justified.

This skepticism, I hypothesized in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, is what rightly informs the Bush Administration's "hawk engagement" policy toward North Korea. (1) Unlike South Korea's "sunshine policy" of unconditional engagement (2), this version of the strategy is laced with a great deal more pessimism, less trust, and a pragmatic calculation of the steps to follow in case the policy fails. Hawks choose to engage North Korea not because they believe incentives can change the regime, but because:

1) "Carrots" today can serve as "sticks" tomorrow (particularly with a target state that has very little);

2) Economic and food aid can start a slow process of separating the North Korean people from its despotic regime;

3) Engagement is the best practical way to build a coalition for punishment by putting the ball in the North's court to maintain cooperation.

As "hawk engagement" believers had always expected, Kim Jong-il has now dropped the cooperation ball. What comes next? The first step is to rally a coalition for diplomatic pressure among the allies. Contrary to press reports, the U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral statement issued at the APEC summit in Mexico took an important first step in this direction. Both Seoul and Tokyo decreed that any hope Pyongyang might have for inter-Korean economic cooperation or for a large "normalization" package of Japanese aid hinges on satisfactory resolution of the North's current violation. People also have wrongfully discounted the significance of a similar statement by APEC as a whole-the first of its kind explicitly on a security problem by the multilateral institution.

In effect, this would be the last round of diplomacy for the North to get out of its own mess. Were it to fail, then a coalition to isolate and minimize contacts with the regime would follow. No doubt there are dangers associated with such an option, not least of which is North Korean agitation, but "hawk engagement proponents" would argue that the likelihood of Kim Jong-il's compliance are marginally higher than they were in the last near-war crisis in June 1994. This is because the regime in Pyongyang today has much more to lose in the current situation than it has to gain by resorting to truculent behavior. This was not the case in 1994. The Pyongyang that opposed the U.S. then, in the plainest of terms, had absolutely nothing to lose. Confronting it would have elicited a violent reaction. Since 1994, however, the North has accumulated substantial gains in terms of diplomatic outreach, economic aid, food aid, and energy. Consolidating and building on these gains, Bush hawks calculate, should therefore lead the North to find a way out of the current impasse. Given the high stakes involved, one hopes that Kim Jong-il makes the right calculation.