Hugs for Pyongyang

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times, October 4, 1999.

Northeast Asia will never be fully secure until the communist dictatorship of North Korea passes from the scene. That the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is able to create so much unease, even in the capital of the world's sole superpower, by threatening one missile test demonstrates the foolhardiness of America's continued entanglement in essentially peripheral security matters. Washington should begin disengaging from the region's unsettling quarrels.

By any normal measure, the DPRK should be irrelevant. Bankrupt,starving, and bereft of allies, Pyongyang is becoming the least of nations.

Arrayed against it is an imposing coalition. The Republic of Korea(ROK) possesses 30 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Japanis the world's second-ranking economic power with a limited but potent military. Russia was once allied with Pyongyang, but is now shipping weapons toSeoul to pay off its debts. China has far greater economic links - trade andinvestment - with the South.

The DPRK does possess a numerically large army, supplemented by missile development and atomic research programs. There is, however, littlebehind this seemingly imposing edifice. Pyongyang's conventional capabilities havefallen sharply, while its nuclear program is only presumed. North Korea'smissiles are few in number and highly inaccurate.

The North's real trump is its willingness to play the game of high brinkmanship. Although the new weapon probably could hit Alaska, it isNorth Korea that would disappear in a radioactive cloud. Moreover, the DPRKalready possesses a missile capable of hitting both the South and Japan. The prospective missile test looks to be just one more attempt to shake loosesome of the West's spare change.

For all of the perversities of North Korean behavior, the regime'sconduct remains far more benign than in the past. The administration has anopportunity to reconfigure present policy with the completion of former DefenseSecretary William Perry's review of U.S. policy towards the North.

America's overriding goal should be to maintain peace on the peninsulauntil North Korea falls into the great dustbin of history. To encourage thatend, modest concessions like the easing of sanctions proposed by theadministration are good investments. But Washington should reverse today's dynamic,under which Pyongyang misbehaves in the hope of receiving more benefits.

Although the United States and its allies should continue discussingplanned missile tests with the DPRK - North Korea has agreed to temporarily haltsuch launches - they should not provide an explicit quid pro quo. Instead, they should indicate that a number of benefits will be forthcoming ifPyongyang stops needlessly antagonizing its neighbors.

The allies should give the DPRK increasing benefits when it behaves,not when it misbehaves. Should it revert to its policy of disruptivebelligerence, all three countries should retaliate quickly but quietly.

They should adopt an official attitude of insouciance - who cares whatthe North does? However, without public fanfare or threats, which wouldlikely make the North more obdurate, the allied states should slow or suspend positive movement on other issues.

The goal should be to squeeze the North, but not too hard. Again, the objective is to push the DPRK toward a more positive stance withoutcreating either a potentially violent implosion or causing it to strike out. Forthe same reason the United States and its allies should fulfill theircommitments under the Framework Accord. Welshing, and thereby risking a restart ofthe nuclear crisis, would benefit no one.

Over the long term Washington should disentangle itself from NortheastAsia. The United States should step back, leaving Seoul and Tokyo to take thelead in dealing with the North. More important, Washington should develop aphased withdrawal program for its troops, and terminate the defense treaty whenthe pullout is complete.

The ROK should then challenge the North to respond positively bydemobilizing some army units and withdrawing some advanced forces from theDemilitarized Zone. The South's private message should be more blunt: negotiate forserious arms reduction, or face a crushing arms race (including missiledevelopment) which North Korea cannot win. And the ROK and Japan should expandsecurity cooperation that, despite some recent positive steps, remains minimal.

Pyongyang's expressed willingness to back off its planned missile testoffers only a temporary respite in a continuing game of international chicken.The United States should begin shifting responsibility for security inNortheast Asia onto its allies, who benefit the most from stability. The Cold Waris over; it is time to terminate America's obsolete Cold War deployment inKorea.