In the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula the Obama administration is virtually repeating the 2004 Bush playbook, one that derailed a successful diplomatic agreement forged by the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. While the acute tensions of the past month appear to be receding—all of the parties involved seem to be taking a step back— the problem is not going to disappear and, unless Washington and its allies re-examine their strategy, another crisis is certain to develop.
A little history. In the spring of 1994, the Clinton administration came very close to a war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel international inspectors, and extract plutonium from reactor fuel rods. Washington moved to beef up its military in South Korea, and, according to Fred Kaplan in the Washington Monthly, there were plans to bomb the Yongbyon reactor. Kaplan is Slate Magazine’s War Stories columnist and author of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. “Yet at the same time,” writes Kaplan, “Clinton set up a diplomatic back-channel to end the crisis peacefully.” Former President Jimmy Carter was sent to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea (DPRK) and the Agreed Framework pact was signed, allowing the parties to back off without losing face.
In return for shipping their fuel rods out of the country, the U.S., South Korea and Japan agreed to finance two light-water nuclear reactors, normalize diplomatic relations, and supply the DPRK with fuel. The U.S. pledged not to invade the North. “Initially, North Korea kept to its side of the bargain,” say Kaplan, “The same cannot be said for our side.” The reactors were never funded and diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze. From North Korea’s point of view, it had been stiffed, and it reacted with public bombast and a secret deal with Pakistan to exchange missile technology for centrifuges to make nuclear fuel.
However, North Korea was still willing to deal, and DPRK leader Kim Jong-il told the Clinton administration that, in exchange for a non-aggression pact, North Korea would agree to shelve its long-range missile program and stop exporting missile technology. North Korea was still adhering to the 1994 agreement not to process its nuclear fuel rods. But time ran out and the incoming Bush administration torpedoed the talks, instead declaring North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, a member of an “axis of evil.”
Nine days after the U.S. Senate passed the Iraq war resolution on Oct. 11, 2002, the White House disavowed the 1994 Agreed Framework, halted fuel supplies, and sharpened the economic embargo the U.S. had imposed on the North since the 1950-53 Korean War. It was hardly a surprise when Pyongyang’s reaction was to toss out the arms inspectors, fire up the Yongbyon reactor, and take the fuel rods out of storage.
Kaplan points out, however, that even when Pyongyang withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 2003, the North Koreans “also said they would reverse their actions and retract their declarations if the United States resumed its obligations under the Agreed Framework and signed a non-aggression pledge.” But Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Vice-President Dick Cheney, banking that increased sanctions would eventually bring down the Kim regime, were not interested in negotiations.
Ignoring North Korea, however, did not sit well with Japan and South Korea. So the White House sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang, where the North Koreans told him they were willing to give up nuclear weapons development in return for a non-aggression pact. Bush, however, dismissed the proposal as “blackmail” and refused to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they first agreed to give up the bomb, a posture disturbingly similar to the one currently being taken by the Obama administration.
But “the bomb” was the only chip the North Koreans had, and giving it up defied logic. Hadn’t NATO and the U.S. used the threat of nuclear weapons to checkmate a supposed Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War? Wasn’t that the rationale behind the Israeli bomb vis-à-vis the Arabs? Pakistan’s ace in the hole to keep the vastly superior Indian army at bay? Why would Pyongyang make such an agreement with a country that made no secret of its intention to destabilize the North Korean regime?
North Korea is not a nice place to live and work, but its reputation as a nuclear-armed loony bin is hardly accurate. Every attempt by the North Koreans to sign a non-aggression pact has been either rebuffed or come at a price—specifically giving up nuclear weapons—Pyongyang is unwilling to pay without such a pledge. The North is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack.
From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons. Indeed, when the U.S. and NATO overthrew the Gadaffi regime in Libya, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official told the Korean Central News Agency that the war had taught “the international community a grave lesson: the truth that one should have the power to defend peace.” Libya had voluntarily given up nuclear weapons research, and the North Koreans were essentially saying, “We told you so.”
There are a number of dangers the current crisis poses. The most unlikely among them is a North Korean attack on the U.S. or South Korea, although an “incident” like the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, is not out of the question as is also another missile test. All of the parties—including China and Russia— know that North Korea is not a serious danger to the U.S. or its allies, Japan and South Korea.
Which is why China is so unhappy with the U.S.’s response to Pyongyang’s bombast: deploying yet more anti-missile systems in the U.S. and Guam, systems that appear suspiciously like yet another dimension of Washington’s “Asia pivot” to beef up America’s military footprint in the region. Russia and China believe those ABM systems are aimed at them, not North Korea, which explains an April 15 accusation by the Chinese Defense Ministry that “hostile western forces” were using tensions to “contain and control our country’s development.”
While the western media interpreted a recent statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping as demonstrating China’s growing impatience with North Korea, according to Zackary Keck, assistant editor of the Asian-pacific focused publication The Diplomat, the speech was more likely aimed at the U.S. than at Pyongyang. Keck argues that China is far more worried about growing U.S. military might in the region than rhetorical blasts from North Korea. The Russians have also complained about “unilateral actions…being taken around North Korea.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We believe it is necessary for all not to build up military muscle and not to use the current situation as an excuse to solve certain geopolitical tasks in the region through military means.”
Tension between nuclear powers is always disconcerting, but the most immediate threat is the possibility of some kind of attack on North Korea by the U.S. or South Korea. Conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye told her military to respond to any attack from the North without “political considerations,” and the U.S. has reaffirmed that it will come to Seoul’s defense in the event of war. It is not a war the North would survive, and therein lays the danger.
According to Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press, coordinator of Dartmouth’s War and Peace Studies, current U.S. military tactics could trigger a nuclear war. “The core of U.S. conventional strategy, refined during recent wars, is to incapacitate the enemy by disabling its central nervous system…leadership bunkers, military command sites, and means of communication.” While such tactics were effective in Yugoslavia and Iraq, they could prove counterproductive “if directed at a nuclear-armed opponent.” Faced with an overwhelming military assault there would be a strong incentive for North Korea to try and halt the attacks, “a job for which nuclear weapons are well suited.”
Council of Foreign Relation’s Korea expert Scott Snyder says, “The primary danger is really related to the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, and in this kind of atmosphere of tensions, that miscalculation could have deadly consequences.” The demand by the Obama administration that North Korea must denuclearize before serious talks can begin is a non-starter, particularly when the Washington and its allies refuse to first agree to a non-aggression pledge. And the White House will have to jettison its “strategic patience” policy, a fancy term for regime change. Both strategies have been utter failures.
There are level heads at work. South Korea recently praised China for helping to manage the crisis, and Seoul has dialed back some of its own bombast. The U.S. canceled a military maneuver, and a “senior administration” official warned about “misperception” and “miscalculation,” remarks that seemed aimed more at South Korea than at the North. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also says Washington is open to talks with China and North Korea. But such talks are predicated, according to the U.S. State Department, on Pyongyang proving “its seriousness by taking meaningful steps to abide by its international obligations.” In short, dismantling its nuclear program and missile research. Neither of those will happen as long as the North feels militarily threatened and economically besieged.
In a way, the Korean crisis is a case of the nuclear powers being hoist on their own petard. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was not aimed at just stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but, according to Article VI, at eliminating those weapons and instituting general disarmament. But today’s world is essentially a nuclear apartheid, with the nuclear powers threatening any countries that try to join the club—unless those countries happen to be allies. North Korea should get rid of its nuclear weapons, but then so should China, Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, and India.
As far as ending the current crisis, one could do worse than follow up on what basketball great Dennis Rodman said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told him: “Obama should call me.” Good place to start.