If headlines and sound bites were believable you might think that the long festering threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea was suddenly solved. “North Korea Agrees to Suspend Nuclear Program,” one euphoric headline read. Chalk it up to short editorial attention span perhaps, but recognize that we are a long way from solution of this problem.
Since at least spring of 1994 North Korea has successfully used a good cop-bad cop strategy against the US and our allies. In that year then dictator Kim Il Sung huffed and puffed endlessly about “turning Seoul into a sea of fire” and reuniting the Korean peninsula by force. Purportedly – and the chief source for this is Bill Clinton – the Clinton administration ratcheted up to a war footing and was preparing to take out the nuclear R&D sites – particularly the infamous Yongbyon facility - by air strikes. Planners in the Pentagon were scrambling to dust of OPLAN 5027 - war on the Korean peninsula, and time-phased force deployment schedules were updated. FLASH contingency movement orders bounced around the globe and overhead satellites were diverted to acquire the latest, real time imagery. America prepared for a military strike that had the potential to turn into a serious shooting war.
Nobody in the White House wanted this confrontation. Don Oberdorfer, Washington Post Korean affairs reporter for years, wrote about how all Clinton’s closest advisors and Cabinet members were adverse to any confrontation but felt helpless to avoid it. No Democrat president after Truman, defined his administration by particular foreign policy proficiency. All hoped that by ignoring festering problems they would resolve themselves. This was particularly true of Jimmy Carter (Korea, Iran, Central America, the world), and this was the case with Bill Clinton. He saw himself as a domestically oriented president. His primary focus was his “legacy” which was impacted adversely by the avalanche of scandal generated by his reckless behavior and the legendary “vast right-wing conspiracy” directed against him.
Till that spring of 1994, the Clintons had assiduously avoided contact with Jimmy Carter. He was politically radioactive and to be avoided at all costs. Still Carter nagged until he was given the green light to make a demarche to Kim Il Sung. Although the trip was caveated as “unofficial,” anyone who knew Asia - and especially communist Asia - realized that the Korean dictator would accept a former American president only as a spokesman for Clinton. In his eyes it could not be otherwise. If Clinton’s objective was to appease North Korea and shove the problem to the side, he could not have picked a more effective emissary. With the largesse of Christmas come early, Carter cut a sweetheart deal called The Agreed Framework. Distilled to essence it was this: America and friends provide North Korea with light water nuclear reactors to make electricity, provides tons of fuel oil until the nuclear plants come on line, transfers huge amounts of food, medical supplies, and other essentials. In return, North Korea agrees to cease its nuclear weapons development program.
Before Carter made a triumphal return to Seoul waving the signed paper in a moment eerily reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain, Kim Il Sung was directing his scientists to shift focus from refined plutonium to enriched uranium. The weapons program proceeded apace. Bottom line: North Korea cheated blatantly on the deal. As a result an economically faltering regime whose potential implosion was exacerbated by successor Kim Jong Il has been propped up and kept running by Western assistance for 11 years. Now here we are again in a reprise of that moment in 1994 that marked a high water point for the North’s policy of threat and bluster. How can we blame them for continuing to pursue a course that has proven so rewarding for them? They demand LWRs, fuel, food, medical assistance, electric power, jobs programs, and more. And they expect to receive it. And they will cheat. How can we be so naïve?
For the past decade, Kim Jong Il has been calling the diplomatic shots in Northeast Asia, despite the fact that he is exponentially the weakest player in the game. On a bad day any of the involved powers could clean his clock militarily. Even the South Korean military – once relatively weak and completely dependent on U.S. support, but now well trained and strong – would be more than a match for a North Korean military of questionable logistics support, maintenance capability, training proficiency and morale. The issue has not recently been one of capability but of consequences: with Seoul and its population of 12 million sited under North Korean WMDs, would the predictable casualties be acceptable? Consistently, the answer has been no. For this reason North Korean blackmail has been effective. And as a direct consequence Kim Jong Il’s manipulation of the Six Party talks has been permitted, if not encouraged, and any concessions – real or apparent – on his part have been met with wild enthusiasm. Such is still the case. So look for lots of cheerleading but no real solution to the North Korean conundrum.
What makes endless, futile negations so terribly frustrating is that these events are not taking place in a diplomatic vacuum. We see formal behavior in overly ornate reception rooms, we hear the meaningless regurgitation of diplomat-speak in the interminable press conferences, and read the inevitable optimistic/pessimistic/confused analyses. While the Six Party principals dither over their tea and analysts try to find meaning in the leaves, the egregious human rights violations committed by Kim Jong Il’s despotic regime go unchecked.
My regular readers know the dreary, numbing statistics: more than 3 million starved to death by a deliberate policy of population control combined with corruption and failed economics; a gulag prison camp system that houses more than 300,000 and kills tens of thousands; poison gas experiments on human beings; rampant disease; kidnapping of foreign nationals; export of missiles to rogue regimes; and narcotics production and export. North Korea may properly be described as a concentration camp above the ground and a mass grave below it. The people of North Korea live under the boot of a terror regime that oppresses, brainwashes, and controls them to a degree never seen on the face of the earth. But where are their voices at these Six Party talks? Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center places an empty chair on stage when he speaks of Korea. “It is for the voiceless, oppressed citizens of North Korea,” he says.
But it is time for more than symbolism, as powerful as that may be. We have unleashed the dogs of war in response to terrorist attacks on America. Within a brief five year period America has liberated more than 50 million innocents from the repressive regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The fresh breath of freedom is blowing across a region where it has been a stranger for millennia. But the people of North Korea remain enslaved to a hedonistic, cunning dictator who is sufficiently adroit to control the representatives of five major nations while cleverly playing the role of an eccentric fool.
Last September, Congress passed – unanimously through both Houses of Congress – the North Korea Human Rights Act. Once signed by the president, it insisted that the issue of human rights be present at the table in any negotiations including those focused primarily on strategic weapons issues. This has not been done. South Korea continues by reason of its hard-Left, appeasement-minded government to thwart any attempts by the U.S. or Japan to inject human rights into the discussion. North Korea threatens to walk out of the talks. China, a giant terrified of a stream of refugees that might emerge from a collapsing North Korea, continues to support the forcible return of desperate, fleeing Koreans, sending them back to certain imprisonment and probable execution in the North. Finally an American human rights representative – Ambassador Jay Lefkowitz – has been appointed to bring this burning issue to the fore. It is late but not too to save many lives, but he must work rapidly and must be supported by sufficient commitment and will from Washington to be effective.
We are a long way from solving the North Korean problem despite overly optimistic, vacuous headlines. Unless and until we insist on freedom for the oppressed people of North Korea, we will continue to dance to the tune played by that odd little man in Pyongyang.
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