Commentary

Bush’s North Korea Gambit

During his trip to East Asia, President Bush noticeably softened his position on the North Korean nuclear crisis. Previously, he had stressed that the United States would not give in to Pyongyang’s “blackmail.” North Korea was expected to abandon its quest to build nuclear weapons without expecting concessions from the United States. In particular, Washington repeatedly spurned Pyongyang’s demand for a nonaggression pact.

Now Bush indicates that the United States may be willing to give North Korea “security assurances” if it gives up its nuclear program. The president emphasizes, though, that such assurances would not come in the form of a binding treaty. Instead, he apparently envisions a multilateral declaration from the United States and North Korea’s neighbors guaranteeing Pyongyang’s security.

Bush’s new flexibility is refreshing, but it is unlikely to make much difference in the long run. Although Kim Jong Il’s regime has stressed the goal of a nonaggression pact with the United States, it is unlikely that such a plan is North Korea’s sole or even primary goal. The rulers of North Korea are cynical, calculating communists. They undoubtedly know that, throughout history, nonaggression pacts scarcely have been worth the paper they’re written on.

It is unlikely that such rulers would place much faith even in a formal treaty with the United States. They would be even less likely to have confidence in a less formal multilateral security promise. After all, what would Japan, South Korea (or even Pyongyang’s nominal allies, Russia and China) do if Washington reneged on the pledge? They certainly would not risk an armed clash with the United States to protect North Korea.

Pyongyang has seen how Washington has treated such non-nuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq. It would not be surprising if the North Koreans concluded that the only reliable way to deter the United States from any thoughts of forcible regime change is to have a nuclear deterrent.

Moreover, even in the unlikely event that Kim’s government is serious about wanting a nonaggression pact, that is hardly the only objective. Time and again, North Korea has emphasized that it wants normal political and economic relations with the United States. That means recognizing the Pyongyang government, exchanging ambassadors, establishing trade relations, and withdrawing U.S. objections to loans to North Korea from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. (Indeed, among Pyongyang’s official reasons for resuming its nuclear program in violation of the agreement that it had signed with the United States in 1994 was that Washington had failed to honor its commitment under that agreement to fully normalize relations.)

There is no sign yet that the Bush administration is prepared to radically transform U.S.-North Korean relations in that fashion. But without such a comprehensive initiative there is almost no chance that the nuclear crisis can be resolved through diplomacy. Indeed, there is no certainty that Pyongyang will give up its quest for nukes under any circumstances.

Bush’s initiative is a small step in the right direction. But it is manifestly insufficient. The best we can hope for is that it will ignite serious negotiations toward a peaceful settlement of this extraordinarily dangerous crisis.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs, including “Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea” (forthcoming, Palgrave/Macmillan).