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Look Away

A do-nothing Korea policy.

The Bush administration's internecine squabbles over Iraq policy have gotten a lot of press, but no issue has divided its foreign policy team more than North Korea. For two years, engagers (who generally favor using diplomacy to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program) and hawks (who are suspicious of negotiations and believe rewarding North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could encourage other proliferators) were unable to resolve their differences. "It's as stark as stark could be--we weren't even on the same page," says one American official. But, in recent months, this chasm supposedly has narrowed. Now, administration spokespeople say, hawks and moderates have come together, throwing their weight behind multilateral negotiations with Pyongyang, which involve the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. This internal unity, they say, has finally allowed the United States to present one face to the world and win them over. "The U.S. has worked patiently to build international consensus ... in the case of North Korea," a State Department statement claimed. "The North Koreans know that a strategy of divide and conquer is no longer an option," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in late October. And the media has picked up on these claims. As The New York Times reported last month, "President Bush has declared that his administration is making great progress in its diplomatic effort to disarm" North Korea.

If only. In truth, if there's any consensus within the administration, it's not about how to make progress but how to avoid it. The divisions on how to handle the North remain. Only now, to advance their contradictory agendas, engagers, hawks, and Bush's domestic political advisers are all outwardly supporting the multilateral talks--while simultaneously undercutting the negotiations to ensure they go nowhere. "There's a confluence of people who support do-nothing talks" that serve a purpose other than their stated goal--getting the Koreans to give up their weapons--says one official. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to work on its weapons program. "Every day we waste, we've got one foot in the grave," says the official.

North Korea has been a contentious issue since early in the Bush administration. In early 2001, Bush ordered a review of the Clinton administration's engagement policy, which had utilized bilateral negotiations in an attempt to prevent the North from building missiles and potentially developing nuclear weapons. Hawks argue that Secretary of State Colin Powell jumped the gun in trying to influence that review. Though Bush had not committed to keeping the Clinton policy, on the eve of a visit to Washington by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in March 2001 Powell announced that the United States would engage the North and "pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off." But, when Kim Dae Jung arrived in Washington, Bush scoffed at the South Korean president's engagement efforts.

Meanwhile, engagers blamed the hawks for pressuring Bush to scuttle the Clinton policy, and battle lines were drawn. The result was a stalemate. "The administration spent two years dithering on North Korea," says a former State Department official, continuing to do nothing even after the North admitted having an illegal uraniumenrichment program in October 2002. Hard-liners, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, insisted regime change was the only way to deal with the threat from Pyongyang. Engagers, led by Powell and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Jim Kelly, believed dialogue had some chance of working. According to officials, each side began bringing as many people as possible to Korea policy meetings to tip the balance in their favor. One Korea expert says that, when engagers seemed to progress toward negotiations with the North, hard-liners would publicly undercut them with deliberately provocative statements about the North Korean regime. For their part, hawks say, engagers wanted to offer carrots to Kim Jong Il no matter how badly Pyongyang behaved.

This spring, North Korea's behavior became even more dangerous. As Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea-watcher at the American Enterprise Institute, notes in a forthcoming book, in April North Korean official Li Gun took Kelly aside at a meeting in Beijing and nonchalantly informed him the North possessed nukes and might be willing to sell them to other nations. As the story goes, this worsening situation united the Bush administration, prompting all sides to see the urgent need for tough, fruitful talks with the North. The first full round of multilateral talks was held in August, with more negotiations originally set for December. In October, Bush for the first time announced that the United States, in conjunction with allies, would be willing to provide North Korea with a written security guarantee in exchange for verifiable nuclear disarmament--a significant shift from his previous insistence that the North had to fully dismantle its nuclear program before any kind of security deal could be reached.

But, in reality, the base of support inside the U.S. government for the talks is narrow. Many hard-liners think that if the talks break down their tougher policies will triumph. The hawks, says one administration official, "are going to give [Powell] enough rope to hang himself on." (When I asked which hawks would serve as hangmen, he smiled devilishly and made a motion like he was waxing a mustache; Bolton wears a thick, bushy mustache.) When I asked one hard-liner whether he favored the ongoing multilateral dialogue, he answered bluntly: "Nothing can convince Kim Jong Il to give up his weapons. ... It's too late now--North Korea has internalized that they have nukes." Instead, the official said, hard-liners are convinced that, in the aftermath of failed talks, American allies in Asia will embrace sterner measures toward the North, including sanctioning Pyongyang at the U.N. Security Council and working harder to cut off flows of funds to Kim Jong Il's regime. Failed talks might allow the military option to remain on the table. "You want your representatives [of your allies] to think you've tried any other options before you go to war," explains Eberstadt. In fact, though few in the Pentagon relish the idea of a confrontation with Pyongyang, one administration official says, "We should say more clearly that we're prepared for [military] contingencies on the peninsula." According to reports this summer in U.S. News and World Report, the Department of Defense has ordered American military commanders to develop an aggressive new war plan for a possible conflict with North Korea.

Similarly, many engagers have not put their full weight behind the multilateral talks because, like the hawks, they believe that failure will force a return to the approach they favored from the start. For the engagers, that means direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea. "The engagers see this as the first step to sending Powell to Pyongyang" for bilateral talks like Madeleine Albright's 2000 negotiations with Kim Jong Il, says one official. "Engagers think multilateral is a way to break through to bilateral."

All sides are working to ensure that the multilateral discussions go nowhere. Some engagers, say officials, "set up the very fact of having a meeting as a success" without insisting that it address difficult issues--to set the table for a move to bilateral negotiations, which they see as the only way to solve the crisis. As a result, engagers help the North Koreans believe they can focus on process, rather than results, an approach that could keep going forever.

Hard-liners are undermining the talks as well. One former Korea policymaker says hawks are trying to influence the writing of the security guarantee that the United States might deliver to Pyongyang, making it too flimsy, so the North Koreans won't accept it. What's more, hawks have been trying to limit the negotiating leeway Kelly has in his talks with the North, preventing him from engaging in a substantive back-and-forth. "The negotiators will have limited latitude in their talks. ... In terms of direct bilateral talks with North Korea in a pull-aside [on the sidelines of multilateral talks], absolutely no," one hard-liner admits. Indeed, says one top former official, the negotiating instructions that Kelly received before talks earlier this year "were extraordinarily restrictive." After each side had read their prepared statements, the official says, North Korean negotiator Li Gun told Kelly that he had four questions for him about the U.S. position. Kelly could respond only by reading the prepared statement again. "[I]f Kelly doesn't come in with more latitude [in the next round of talks], then he'll fail," says one former policymaker.

Meanwhile, according to several administration players, Bush's political shop doesn't want the multilateral talks to succeed either. Although the politicos are in favor of some limited dialogue with the North--to make it seem as though the White House is doing something--they don't want the talks to develop into serious negotiations, because they want to keep Korea, unpredictable and dangerous, largely out of the media until after the 2004 elections. If the talks were to become serious, involving lengthy dialogue with the North Koreans over their nuclear program, the famously hard-line North Koreans might threaten the United States or test a nuke to increase their negotiating leverage--stunts that could terrify the American electorate. "For political people, a success is keeping [Korea] off the front pages of the papers. ... They want to put it in a box until after the election," says one official. Not surprisingly, then, The Washington Post reported this week that the scheduled December talks may be postponed until 2004.

While the United States constructs its facade of policy, North Korea continues to work on its weapons programs. In early November, The New York Times reported that the CIA now believes Pyongyang has "mastered the technology of turning its nuclear fuel into functioning weapons" and that intelligence officers think the North has more than the one or two nukes it was previously estimated to possess. And, in recent weeks, North Korean officials have more explicitly threatened to detonate one of their nuclear devices.

A test could cause chaos in Northeast Asia, but even that might not snap the Bush administration out of its do-little approach. In fact, several Korea specialists warn, Powell and other officials might play down a test by simply saying that the United States already knew North Korea had nukes. "The Bush administration has said internally [but not to the media] ... that a North Korean nuclear test will not cause Bush to call it a crisis," says one former official. But a test would confirm that the North is producing numerous devices, because it would be loath to waste bombs on a test if it only had one or two. Worse, proliferation experts note that no country has ever given up their nukes after conducting a test. The United States needs at least a "standstill" policy designed to buy time and prevent the North from building up its arsenal and testing while talks continue, says Richard Haass, the State Department director of policy planning until last summer and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "One big mistake the Clintons made and that we could make is assuming time is on our side," agrees an administration official. North Korea may already be using spent fuel it reprocessed this year to make more nukes. And, the official says, Pyongyang is "burrowing away at building a [longer-range missile]." If that's the case, our time is already running out.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent for The New Republic and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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