Over the past several weeks, a parade of foreign policy experts, touting a pile of recently published “blue-ribbon” think-tank reports, has taken to the airwaves in full cry against the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea. Or, more precisely, the absence of a Bush administration policy toward North Korea. According to these critics, the feuds between the Defense and State Departments that hobble so much else have virtually paralyzed U.S. policy toward the Hermit Kingdom. Thus, Senator Joseph Biden worries about a “San Andreas Fault” running through the Bush team’s deliberations, while Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant frets that “the fractious Bush administration is putting its own silly quarrels ahead of a determined response to the most serious threat to American security—nuclear weapons in North Korea.”
There is a kernel of truth to the complaints. But, oddly enough, the schizophrenia strategy seems to be succeeding. Like a broken watch that’s right twice a day, the administration’s approach to Korea, uncoordinated, swinging wildly between extremes, and hampered by bureaucratic rivalries and policy disputes, has evolved into something that makes sense. That something is a two- track policy, with the State Department pursuing negotiations while the rest of the administration pursues regime change, which has begun to sway allies and adversaries alike. “This is Darwinian evolution, not a master plan,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, “and it’s working.”
The most hawkish of the North Korea hawks nest, ironically, at the State Department, where Undersecretary of State John Bolton presides over a miniature Pentagon on the seventh floor. Bolton, whose hawkish foreign policy views routinely put him at odds with his State colleagues, has never had much use for the blandishments America’s diplomatic corps favors in its dealings with North Korea. In response to the latest round of provocations from Pyongyang, which included an announcement that it possesses a nuclear weapon, Bolton—along with Condoleezza Rice, National Security Council counterproliferation point man Robert Joseph, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—has devised a new policy toward the Stalinist state. The Bolton strategy, as Koreawatchers have dubbed it, calls for the selective interdiction of ships from the North carrying drugs, missiles, and weapons technology. These illicit exports, bound for the likes of Yemen and Pakistan, net Pyongyang roughly $1 billion per year, almost twice the amount of its legitimate exports. Administration officials claim the strategy’s goals are fairly straightforward: “strangulation” followed by “regime change.” Hence, its supporters see no pressing need for negotiations with the North. As Paul Wolfowitz explained during the Bush presidential campaign, it was “totally implausible” that North Korea, “a regime that cares about very little except its military capabilities, would voluntarily give up the ultimate weapon” in exchange for promises of U.S. assistance. Indeed, Pentagon officials lobbied hard against the last round of U.S.-North Korea talks held in April in Beijing. And, when that failed, Rumsfeld recommended that Bolton represent the United States in place of Colin Powell’s candidate, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
The defense secretary’s reluctance to leave North Korea to the State Department derives from the fear that Foggy Bottom has plans to give away the store. Taking their lead from Powell’s insistence soon after taking office that the Bush team would continue to engage Pyongyang just as the Clinton administration did, State Department officials, including Kelly and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, still advertise the virtues of talks and have pressed for another round later this summer with Kim Jong Il’s lieutenants, who they believe wield the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip. Last month, that conviction nearly created a firestorm when it emerged that the North Koreans had confided to American diplomats in March that they had begun to reprocess nuclear fuel. Yet the information never left the State Department, creating the impression that its officials feared the revelation might torpedo future talks. (Foggy Bottom claims the language used by the Koreans to describe the program was too vague to pass along.) As for the Pentagon’s interdiction strategy, while State Department officials have publicly endorsed it, prevailing wisdom at Foggy Bottom assumes the policy, in the words of a senior administration official, “will never work, the [allies] will never cooperate, and it will only make a lousy situation worse.”
All this may look like a recipe for paralysis. But it hasn’t been. Chasing their very different objectives, the two Bush camps have actually ended up bolstering each other’s causes. Though it’s unlikely to accomplish the aim of regime change, recent events suggest the interdiction strategy could turn out to be far more effective than its detractors predict. Aware that the interdiction policy requires the cooperation of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and China, the Bush team’s unilateralists were unusually busy during the last few weeks trying to forge a multilateral consensus on interdiction a campaign that has already yielded a more unified negotiating stance toward the North. At a summit in Madrid two weeks ago, the administration secured the rhetorical backing of ten nations for its Proliferation Security Initiative, the broader policy of clamping down on weapon and drug exports from rogue states. In meetings in Japan, Cambodia, and Hawaii during the past two weeks, representatives from Tokyo, Canberra, and Seoul all pledged to help Washington implement the strategy, and the South Korean government explicitly announced that pressure on the North would help compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. Japan quickly made good on its promise by detaining two North Korean ships and threatening to board a third, something Australia has done as well. As for China, it likely will never match the pledges made by South Korea, Australia, and Japan. But it did briefly cut off oil deliveries to North Korea earlier this year in an attempt to pressure Pyongyang, and, last week, Beijing defied Pyongyang and endorsed the idea of Japanese and South Korean representatives participating alongside their American counterparts in multilateral talks with the North, a step North Korea says it will not abide.
Even if China refuses to squeeze its Stalinist neighbor and even if the skeptics who claim the interdiction effort will not detect every weapons shipment turn out to be correct, the strategy still makes sense as a negotiating tool. To begin with, halting 80 percent or even 50 percent of North Korea’s deadly exports would be an improvement over the current status qu0— halting none at all. It will also probably have an effect on the buying end, prompting countries such as Yemen or Pakistan to think twice about purchasing North Korean weapons that they may never receive. More broadly, the policy shows Pyongyang that crime doesn’t pay. “What this strategy does,” says Victor Cha, a North Korea scholar at Georgetown University, “is to show the North Koreans that nuclear weapons will diminish rather than enhance their security, to the point of them having even fewer resources than they already have.”
By contrast, carrots alone have never gotten American diplomats very far in their dealings with Pyongyang—the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 1992 agreement with South Korea for a nuclear-free peninsula being but two examples of broken agreements. “More pressure is better than no pressure,” says Eberstadt, “and to think that without it we can just buy out [North Korea’s] nuclear program for the fourth time in a row ignores that we’ve been ‘testing their intentions’ for the past fifteen years.” If anything, the sharpening of U.S. policy in the past few weeks has led to even more vocal demands for talks from the North Koreans, who, significantly, have now offered not only to freeze their nuclear programs but to abandon them altogether.
If proponents of talks have little to fear from the administration’s hard- liners, the reverse is true as well. Notwithstanding the analysis that insists the Stalinist regime will never surrender its weapons programs, it hardly amounts to a show of support for Pyongyang if American diplomats meet occasionally with their North Korean counterparts, if only to double-check the assumption. There are talks and then there are talks, and the State Department’s latest round with North Korea, and presumably the next round as well, bear little resemblance to the Clinton administration’s policy of engagement. Indeed, the White House has ordered State Department negotiators not to make any concessions to the North Koreans, and, at the last round, they did little more than listen. “We’ve made clear we’re not going to pay for elimination of the nuclear weapons programs that never should have begun in the first place,” says State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. And the structure of the talks, which include China and may be expanded to include Japan and South Korea, should allay the fears of those who worry that bilateral negotiations will give the North Koreans a chance to play the United States off against allies such as Seoul. Moreover, it was the latest round of talks that created the opening for a harder line in the first place. “It’s hard to understand why people who favor regime change don’t want more negotiations like the last Beijing round,” says Robert Einhorn, the Clinton team’s lead North Korea negotiator, “because the provocative and irresponsible statements from the North Koreans reinforced the impression that we can’t do business with them. “
Equally important, the appearance of the United States traveling the extra mile in the service of peace comforts allies, such as South Korea’s President Roh Moo Hyun, who insist on “dialogue and pressure side by side.” And the United States has no choice but to comfort them, at least if the administration means to secure the multilateral support on which its interdiction strategy, and perhaps sterner measures to come, depends. This is even truer because Washington—fearing a repeat of the incident last December when Spanish forces seized a missile-laden North Korean ship on the high seas, only to let it go in the absence of an international convention permitting them to detain it—has urged its allies to invoke their own national laws when halting future shipments.
Finally, talks provide a valve for the North Koreans if strangulation prompts Pyongyang to reconsider its nuclear ambitions. And that, in the end, may be the only hope, since a new regime will almost certainly not arrive in North Korea before a full-blown atomic arsenal does—a day that may be coming in months rather than years. If Washington’s two Korea policies end up postponing that day, Americans will have the administration’s schizophrenia to thank.
This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.