North Korea: The Best Bad Option

Critics of the nascent North Korea nuclear deal are crying foul because it doesn’t address human rights. But stability doesn’t come cheap.

After refusing to talk to Pyongyang for years, the Bush administration decided on a course of "appeasement"-as officials derided any proposal to negotiate with Iraq and still dismiss any meaningful contact with Iran. So far Washington's bet has paid off, but some of the sharpest critics of administration policy contend that the United States has sacrificed human rights in the bargain. However, for once the administration got its priorities right: stopping the North's nuclear program is necessary to achieve progress elsewhere. Against all odds, the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has begun dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and turned over 19,000 pages of documents on its nuclear activities. On Friday the North demolished the plant's cooling tower, a symbolic coda, if not end, to its nuclear program.  In return, the United States lifted sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and delisted Pyongyang as a terrorist state. Washington previously agreed to unfreeze some North Korean bank accounts and provided 134,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

In theory, the United States now will seek further explanations and verify the North's claims, leading to a North Korean turnover of nuclear materials, Western inspections, Washington's recognition of the DPRK, the lifting of American sanctions, and abundant trade and aid from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The Korean peninsula will again be nuclear-free. And the lion will lie down with the lamb.

There is abundant reason for skepticism. Despite the movement forward, as the Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter observed, "we are still a long distance from Washington's stated objective of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to the program."

The North Korean declaration was six months late and incomplete, with no accounting for weapons production or proliferation activities. There is no discussion of the parallel uranium enrichment program Pyongyang is thought to possess, and the reactor is two decades old, with a limited useful life. Moreover, we cannot be certain that the North has not developed underground facilities. And Pyongyang has a history of breaking agreements. But dealing with the DPRK always is a case of choosing the least bad alternative. Military strikes against the North's nuclear facilities, which are being dismantled, would be bizarre. Attacking other targets would likely trigger North Korean retaliation against Seoul, if not a full-scale invasion. Additional sanctions wouldn't likely achieve much against a regime that has survived the mass starvation of its people, and China is unlikely to back such a policy.

So playing out the six-party talks, with heightened U.S.-North Korean engagement, appears to be the only policy with any hope of success. But it is now being criticized for ignoring human rights.

For instance, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, condemned the Bush administration for relaxing sanctions: "I'm extremely disappointed that the agreement appears to completely ignore continuing gross human rights violations by the North Korean government against its own people." Therefore, Land argued, "any agreement with North Korea must include guarantees that would alleviate the widespread and despicable suffering of the North Korean people at the hands of their own government." Japan has taken a similar stance, lobbying to tie the lifting of sanctions to a North Korean accounting of the status of Japanese kidnapped by the DPRK during the 1970s and 1980s. News of America's plans led angry relatives of the abducted to attack their government for doing too little. Mark Green, who worked on the National Security Council, contends that the Bush administration made a "political commitment" to Tokyo to maintain sanctions until progress was made on the issue.

The North Korean regime is uniquely odious. Perhaps only Burma's junta comes close in terms of venality, poverty and brutality. So improving human rights should be a priority. But the measures chosen should have a reasonable chance of success. Maintaining sanctions does not.

The United States has never had diplomatic relations with the North. Americans have never traded with the people's paradise. Over the last two decades the DPRK has suffered through economic contraction and famine. Between a half million and as many as two million people are thought to have died. The regime was willing to accept these consequences rather than yield to Western pressure. Is it conceivable that maintaining sanctions-which won't be lifted in practice until other regulations are removed months from now-would cause Pyongyang to remake itself?

In an odd sense, human rights are more important than nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-il and his apparatchiks. Bombs can be traded away to achieve regime security, while domestic politics is regime security. To give up totalitarianism is to give up control. Kim might believe that he can make a tidy profit by effectively selling his nuclear program, and perhaps even, though unlikely in my view, his existing weapons. But trading away the tools of repression that keep him in power? Get real.

Thus, putting human rights first, or at least close enough to the top to block the current deal, is more likely to prevent a settlement of any kind. And if the nuclear issue remains unresolved-especially if Pyongyang decides to augment its arsenal-then no solution to human rights is likely. It is hard to see why an angry, isolated, impoverished and well-armed North Korea would suddenly agree to treat its people like human beings with human rights. Sadly, conditions could actually worsen, if that's possible.