The news of an unprovoked artillery attack deliberately targeting South Korean civilians by North Korea’s Kim dynasty, which has the audacity to disguise itself as a nation state, raises anew the question of how a civilized world responds to such pointless and blatant aggression. This is a question with which we have been confronted on the Korean peninsula since the armistice supposedly marking the end of hostilities in 1953, and our failure to confront it has made the perpetual standoff increasingly more complicated and, unfortunately, progressively more dangerous.
The totality of North Korean provocations are too numerous to reprint in these pages. However, since the turn of the 21st century they can no longer be dismissed simply as “bad behavior” by a rogue state. In October 2002, the United States reported evidence of a secret uranium enrichment program in North Korea in defiance of an “agreed framework” negotiated in 1994 during the Clinton administration, which required the Koreans to renounce any program to enrich uranium. In exchange the U.S. provided North Korea with oil and light water nuclear reactors.
As we now know, the Koreans did not comply and by 2002 they had amassed over 1000 nuclear rods from storage and processed them into enriched uranium for a nuclear power plant in Yongbyon. Facing pressure to scrap its renewed nuclear weapons program the North told the U.S. that it would take tougher counteraction if we did not agree to face-to-face, two-party talks with them.
In January of 2003, North Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty because it was being “most seriously threatened” by the United States. This was followed in a matter of days by a Korean pronouncement that it was not bound by the 1999 missile test moratorium. A month later that government announced that it had reactivated a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor, and experts said that this would permit the North Koreans to assemble a nuclear bomb within a year.
The United States has consistently and correctly avoided two‑party talks with North Korea, even in the face of a barrage of criticism from the usual cast of appeasers who otherwise condemn U.S. unilateralism. Instead a six-nation negotiation was convened consisting of South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. Several rounds of discussion were held from August 2003 through 2007. In that year North Korea agreed to freeze their nuclear weapons program, shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for more fuel oil, emergency energy assistance and the unfreezing of $25 million in bank funds belonging to North Korea.
All during these negotiations and since this most recent agreement, North Korea has in fact tested long range missiles, conducted two nuclear bomb tests, provided materials to Syria to build its own nuclear facility (which was then destroyed by Israel), exported scud missiles, sent uranium hexafluoride to Libya, worked to reopen the Yongbyon facility and disclosed this November that they have a new nuclear reactor and enrichment facility.
So, what to do? Let’s start with what not to do. Stop negotiating with North Korea, paying extortionate bribes, only to have the ante raised later. Of course, that is the path proposed by the pied piper of appeasement, ex‑president Jimmy Carter, who proves every few months that he should confine his particular role as a former president to carpentry on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Carter, who has, for years, given the impression that he still thinks of himself as president when he is no more than a footnote to history, led the strongest nation in the world to an international humiliation during the first major Islamic attack on the United States. Specifically, the seizing of our embassy in Teheran, and the holding of our diplomats as hostages for over a year, and, who, essentially, reduced our foreign policy response to tying yellow ribbons around old oak trees ala Tony Orlando and Dawn, is now lecturing us on how to deal with North Korea.
As he sees it North Korea follows a state religion of “self reliance”. Our close relations with South Korea make us too compliant with their needs (put another way, we should abandon a booming, successful and democratic ally, for the needs of a despotic dynasty — does this sound strangely like his prescription for the middle east?). Ever the self‑aggrandizer Carter recites his one‑on‑one meetings in North Korea resulting in the release of an American hiker as evidence of his diplomatic skills. He refers to his role as a former president as “superior” to the other living former presidents because of his relationship with the Carter Center. He criticizes former President Bush for labeling North Korea as part of an axis of evil. He suggests one‑on‑one negotiations with the Kims for a comprehensive settlement to avoid having the North Koreans take whatever action they feel is necessary to defend themselves from what they fear most, a military attack supported by the United States. Please — Earth to Carter: We have had troops garrisoned in South Korea for 57 years now numbering only 28,500 whereas the North Koreans have an active and reserve army of over 9.0 million, many of which are massed at the 38th parallel.
Ironically, Mr. Carter points the way to a real policy. Do exactly the opposite of what he says. We are not without cards to play. What are they? Turn up the pressure to prevent the North from access to hard currency thus depriving them of the ability to buy the vital goods it needs. We can also encourage the South Koreans to shut down the Kaesong industrial complex, a joint North‑South facility that is a major source of hard currency for North Korea.
Michael Green, a former senior official on the National Security Council staff and Michel Tobey, formerly deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, in a recent article quoted by the Wall Street Journal put it exactly right. “The focus right now should be on containment, interdiction and pressure. The inability to do so on a sustained basis until now was a failure of policy, not intelligence.”
The main path to controlling North Korea runs through Beijing. It is no longer sufficient for the president to issue statements of outrage. They do nothing. Instead, at the highest levels, either a direct discussion by the president with his Chinese counterpart, or a meeting between Secretary Clinton and the Chinese foreign minister, is needed to make clear that good relations with the U.S. will be dependent on China controlling their North Korean puppet. It is said that China wants to be sure that the northern regime won’t collapse and cause thousands of refugees to flood into China. However, that very thing could happen if hostilities break out because of the north’s deadly provocations.
On the subject of refugees, the U.S. and South Korea could quietly assure China that they would both assume some responsibility for the cost of absorbing North Koreans fleeing their prison state and in finding sanctuary. In addition, we could, together with the South Korean government, agree that the Korean peninsula will not be unified under Seoul’s control for a fixed period of time. We can’t make China do something which it considers not to be in its interest, but we can try and work with them to assuage whatever damage it is they fear from finally controlling North Korea.
The Chinese need to be reminded that if they want to be seen as a respected and responsible power, they cannot expect the rest of the world to take seriously their suggestion that in the sinking of the South Korean ship or the attack on the South Korean island the facts don’t make clear who was the aggressor. They need to know that this is a matter of utmost importance to U.S. security because it won’t be long before a North Korean nuclear tipped ICBM could reach our shores. And if they want to avoid US warships, perhaps carrying tactical nuclear weapons from constantly patrolling the Yellow Sea, the time to rein in the Kims is now. In short, the Chinese need to consider the importance of their relations with the United States as part of the Korean equation.
We can no longer avert our eyes; a hostile world, including Al Qaeda and Iran is watching to see if America has the will to deal with the threat of dictatorial regimes with nuclear weapons. Appeasement can be very seductive. It may buy short term peace, or so the appeasers believe. But history teaches a different lesson. It, all too often, results in surrender…or war.