Commentary

North Korean Nukes: Beyond the Blame Game

In the days since North Korea’s apparent nuclear test, politicians and pundits have stepped forward to point fingers. According to John McCain, Bill Clinton is responsible. Clinton’s inducements under the 1994 framework agreement failed to satiate Kim Jong-Il’s appetite for nuclear weapons. Not so, says the former president’s wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who through a spokesman criticized McCain for playing “politics of the most dangerous kind.”

Not to be outdone, Sen. Clinton pinned the blame on the Bush administration for failing to stop the North Koreans “from openly testing a nuclear weapon and presenting a new danger” to the world.

But while Americans are understandably focused on the failures of U.S. policy, the blame really starts with Kim. The dictator claims that his nuclear program is necessary to protect North Korean sovereignty and deter the United States from attacking the regime. Kim’s invocation of the United States’ “hostile attitude” as a justification for the North’s nuclear program is self-serving, but that doesn’t make it less true.

From branding North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil to remarking that he “loathes” Kim Jong-Il, President Bush’s policy has had the unintended effect of encouraging the North to continue pursuing nuclear weapons. Since it is our policy that the North remain non-nuclear, we must acknowledge that our approach has failed.

But in this, we are hardly alone: North Korea’s neighbors have failed as well. The East Asian blame game begins with China, which has repeatedly failed to rein in its client. The Chinese warned Kim not to conduct provocative missile tests in July, and he brazenly ignored them. When North Korea again ignored Chinese warnings and went ahead with its nuclear test, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao declared that the North’s actions, conducted “flagrantly, and in disregard of the international community’s shared opposition,” would “undoubtedly exert a negative impact” on relations between the two countries.

If only reluctantly, China now appears poised to support economic sanctions at the United Nations, and it always retains the ability to apply additional unofficial methods for squeezing Pyongyang. For example, “technical difficulties” might impede the flow of oil through pipelines from China to North Korea just as readily as a deliberate, public cut-off.

The sense of failure is just as strong in South Korea. In a televised address to the nation, President Roh Moo-Hyun conceded that his Sunshine Policy of increased trade, aid, and engagement with the North had not succeeded. This policy, long scorned by hawks in Washington as naïve and counterproductive, was popular among the South Korean people, but these sentiments seem now to be changing. In the short term, the South is likely to back away from economic engagement with the North, and it will likely reconsider the state of its defenses. At least one poll raises the possibility that the South Koreans want nuclear weapons of their own.

And what of Japan? Newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocates amending the country’s pacifist constitution to allow its Self-Defense Force to better address regional security challenges, and North Korea is at the top of the list. At the same time, however, the Japanese can’t go it alone. Abe wants improved relations with his neighbors, and the North Korean nuclear test – which occurred only hours after Abe visited Beijing, and as he was preparing for meetings in Seoul – punctuated the importance of these visits.

Important differences between the three countries remain, but while the Clinton administration essentially excluded Japan and South Korea from discussions about how to handle North Korea in the early 1990s, the Bush administration has insisted that negotiations proceed within a multilateral framework. This posture ensures that the countries most directly threatened by the North’s saber-rattling will be in the forefront of resolving it.

As it should be. We cannot be sanguine about the potential dangers represented by the North’s nuclear test. The potential for nuclear proliferation in the region exists, as does the prospect that Kim Jong-Il, emboldened by his ability to defy global public opinion, will engage in even more reckless behavior.

But with the American public increasingly frustrated by the high costs and dubious benefits of policing the world, and more blame than they know what to do with, policymakers in Washington should welcome opportunities to shift some of the burdens to regional players. This process is playing out in East Asia right now. North Korea poses a direct threat to its neighbors, so we should not be surprised if they put aside their differences and resolve the matter once and for all. A nuclear test was bad enough; no one wants to be blamed for failing to stop something worse.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies.