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OPENING ARGUMENT - Bush Has Botched North Korea. Would Kerry Do Better? OPENING ARGUMENT - Bush Has Botched North Korea. Would Kerry Do Better...

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Magazine

OPENING ARGUMENT - Bush Has Botched North Korea. Would Kerry Do Better?

September 18, 2004











President

Bush claims that his tough, confrontational approach to the bad

guys of the world has made America safer. But on his watch, the

world's most dangerous regime -- North Korea -- has openly

declared that it is building nuclear bombs as fast as it can. It

may already (experts speculate) have as many as a dozen, and it

shows signs of preparing its first nuclear bomb test. Nukes in

the hands of this paranoid, impoverished regime -- which is also

building long-range missiles and seems quite capable of selling

nukes to Al Qaeda -- represent a vastly greater threat to

American cities than Saddam Hussein ever did.

It's

unclear whether any president could have prevented this, short

of war. But it's hard to imagine anyone doing much worse than

Bush has done. Looking to the future, would John Kerry do

better? The answer may turn on a blood-curdling choice: Would it

be better to pin all our hopes on peaceful negotiations that

seem less than likely to stop North Korea from building a vast

nuclear arsenal? Or should we threaten -- and, if necessary,

launch -- pre-emptive bombing attacks that could lead to another

all-out Korean war and even the nuking of South Korea and

Japan?

Bush set his course on North Korea in March

2001, when he slapped down Secretary of State Colin Powell for

having sensibly said that the administration would continue

President Clinton's carrot-and-stick negotiating strategy with

North Korea. Instead, seeing the Clinton approach as

capitulation to nuclear blackmail, Bush put talks with North

Korea into the deep freeze. In the process, he humiliated

visiting South Korean President Kim Jae Dung, whose own

"sunshine" policy was closely linked to Clinton's. Bush later

included Kim Jong Il's odious tyranny in his "axis of evil.""We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it," Dick

Cheney reportedly said in one key meeting on North Korea. That

hard-line approach would have made sense if Bush had a strategy

for defeating or dictating terms to North Korea. But Bush had no

such strategy. No carrot, no stick, no nothing, except for a

half-hearted, multilateral negotiating process that went nowhere

for more than three years. Meanwhile, North Korea has mocked the

Bush administration's March 2003 threat that it "would not

tolerate" a North Korean nuclear arsenal by announcing that it

is building one.

Bush finally changed course this

June. Yielding to intense international pressure, he offered to

provide a "provisional" nonaggression guarantee and economic aid

in exchange for North Korea's dismantling its nuclear programs.

But this may be too little, too late. By becoming militarily

bogged down and diplomatically isolated in Iraq, while North

Korea has been arming itself to the teeth, Bush has put America

in a far weaker bargaining position than before.

"At

various points during the escalating North Korean crisis, the

Bush administration's position has seemed confused, reactive, or

vacillating, [a] defiant but nonetheless largely passive posture

of refusing to give in to North Korean blackmail," according to

an article in the August 30 Weekly Standard co-authored by

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. This

from an expert who shares the Bush hard-liners' conviction that

North Korea is extremely unlikely to disarm voluntarily.So John Kerry had good reason to blast Bush on September

12 for letting "a nuclear nightmare" develop in North Korea.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan's standard retort --

that the Clinton administration had been "duped" and its policy

had "failed" -- was less than convincing.

Compared

with the Bush approach, the Clinton policy was a roaring

success. It was forged during the crisis of 1993 and 1994. North

Korea, which was already believed to have reprocessed enough

spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear complex to make bomb-grade

plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs, ejected International

Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and prepared to make more bombs.

While implicitly threatening a pre-emptive military attack,

Clinton saw negotiation with the evil and duplicitous North

Korean regime as the least bad option. His administration worked

out a deal, the "Agreed Framework," in October 1994. North Korea

agreed to freeze its nuclear program and open its nuclear

facilities to inspectors. In return, the U.S., South Korea, and

Japan would supply North Korea with fuel oil and two relatively

safe light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity.This agreement had a troubled history, with North Korea

engaging in provocations, including missile tests and exports;

with suspicions that it might be cheating (to nobody's great

surprise) on its nuclear commitments; and with work on the

light-water reactors falling far behind schedule. By the end of

the Clinton administration, evidence was accumulating that North

Korea might be secretly enriching uranium from which bombs could

be built.

All this, plus the North Korean regime's

atrocities against its own people, helps explain Bush's loathing

for Kim Jong Il and his distaste for the Clinton policy. The

uncompromising Bush approach seemed superficially vindicated in

late 2002, when -- confronted with evidence by a State

Department envoy -- Kim's regime defiantly admitted that it had

been enriching uranium. This violated both the Agreed Framework

and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The U.S. then suspended

talks and fuel-oil deliveries. And North Korea withdrew from the

nonproliferation treaty and (it has said) resumed reprocessing

fuel rods into plutonium and making nuclear weapons.But Clinton's Agreed Framework did freeze North Korea's

reprocessing of fuel rods into plutonium and nuclear bombs --

the most urgent danger -- for eight years. Otherwise, "North

Korea could today have 50 to 100 nuclear weapons," as William J.

Perry, who was Defense secretary from 1994 to 1997, wrote in a

July 2003 op-ed. That would have been more than enough to tempt

North Korea to export nukes to terrorists or others. It could

also have provoked a dangerous regional arms race, in which

Seoul, Tokyo, and even Taiwan might have gone nuclear, and the

collapse of the nonproliferation regime. Now these dangers have

again become pressing.

Bush has done some things

right. He has engaged China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea in

multilateral talks to increase the pressure on North Korea and

share the burdens. And as noted above, since June, Bush has

adopted a variant of the Clinton carrot-and-stick diplomacy that

he had previously disdained.

Kerry has suggested that

he would be more effective in negotiations than Bush. That's

certainly worth a try. But "unless the United States can find a

way to cause Kim Jong Il to fear a unilateral military attack,

no negotiated settlement is likely to prove possible," writes

Graham Allison in his new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate

Preventable Catastrophe. That's very bad news, if true.Allison, a Harvard professor, high-level Clinton Defense

Department alumnus, and Kerry supporter, says the president

should not only offer an unambiguous nonaggression pact and

major economic assistance, but also threaten that unless Kim

Jong Il agrees to disarm, "the United States [will destroy]

North Korea's known nuclear facilities in a precision-bombing

campaign" -- and, if Kim retaliates, will destroy his regime as

well.

Many other experts, Democratic and Republican

alike, say that such a pre-emptive attack on North Korea "is not

a practical option and would be very, very dangerous," in the

words of Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for

International Peace. An all-out war in Korea would take hundreds

of thousands or even millions of South Korean lives and many

thousands of American lives.

Allison's candidate,

Kerry, seems unlikely to implement Allison's suggested strategy.

Indeed, for those who want to scare North Korea straight, Bush

may be a better bet. The president -- notwithstanding his

passivity so far on North Korea -- seems by nature and

reputation far more likely than Kerry to launch a pre-emptive

attack and thus to be credible in threatening one.The most likely scenario is that given the strategically weak

position into which Bush has maneuvered us, neither Bush nor

Kerry would go to war to disarm North Korea -- and North Korea

knows it. For the same reason, the price of bribing it to

promise nuclear disarmament has no doubt gone up.

The

situation in Iran, the other axis-of-evil regime that is racing

to go nuclear, is much the same. "Because it lost time and

squandered resources," as James Fallows wrote in the October

Atlantic Monthly, "the United States now has no good options for

dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers

and weapons; it has less international leverage through the

'soft power' of its alliances and treaties; it even has less

intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward

Iraq."

Such is the legacy of the president who says

he is building "a safer world."













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