This weekend, Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, is not in Israel or in Jordan, preparing for imminent war with Iraq. He is not in Europe, mollifying allies. Instead, he is in Japan and South Korea, quietly dealing with the other weapons-of-mass-destruction crisis, the one we have heard much less about.
Most of his trip will be spent discussing North Korea, a nation that has not only rejected an international inspections regime, but has actually admitted that it has developed nuclear weapons; that has a million troops directly on the border of South Korea, within artillery range of Seoul; that is led by Kim Jong Il, a bizarre, neo-Stalinist dictator whose paranoia is legendary, and whose concentration camps contain hundreds of thousands of “enemies of the people”.
He is also dealing with a diplomatic conundrum whose oddity and obscurity have created a number of myths. The most powerful is that the Bush administration has “botched” relations with North Korea, and is now paying the price. The second most powerful is that the administration has failed in North Korea because it is distracted by the lesser problem of Iraq. The truth is actually much grimmer: virtually every policy towards North Korea has been tried or considered, and virtually every one has either failed, or been judged too dangerous to try at all.
To explain it all, we need to backtrack. Yes, it’s true, negotiations have been tried in the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration did a deal with North Korea. The North Koreans agreed not to build the wrong, bomb-producing sort of nuclear reactor. In exchange, the US agreed to provide them with “aid”: two of the right, non-bomb-producing sort of nuclear reactors, as well as food to prevent them from starving. The price: $5 billion. Later, North Korea offered the US another deal.
They would agree not to export any of their long-range missile technology if the US offered them even more “aid”. The price: a further $1 billion. Finally, the North began cautiously opening itself up to the South, agreeing, rather spectacularly, to entertain a visit from the South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung – in exchange (we now know) for more “aid” from the South Korean government and South Korean companies. The price: several hundred million dollars more.
At the time, many complained that this was little more than blackmail, and they were right. North Korea wanted to keep its dying economy going. The US wanted to prevent North Korea from launching nuclear weapons at Los Angeles and selling long-range missiles to Iraq. Many complained that this policy was morally questionable, since America was, in effect, bankrolling a corrupt and tyrannical regime. More importantly, it was also a total failure.
In the six years that followed the 1994 accord, the US never did get around to building those light-water reactors, largely because the North Koreans did not keep their side of the bargain. Nor did President Clinton himself ever get around to making a much-anticipated visit to Pyongyang, largely because US-North Korean missile talks quietly collapsed in November 2000, before President Bush even took charge.
True, the Bush administration did make a few changes. For one, the public enthusiasm of President Clinton – which masked the private scepticism of everyone else – disappeared, replaced by the public scepticism of President Bush. Whereas the Clinton administration quietly stonewalled negotiations, the Bush administration loudly stonewalled negotiations. Whereas the Clinton administration kept quiet about Kim Jong Il and his henchmen, President Bush included North Korea in the “axis of evil”. Whereas the Clinton administration kept its suspicions about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme to itself, the Bush administration confronted the North Koreans with the evidence. Surprised, the North Koreans conceded – yes, they had been building nuclear weapons – and then upped the ante, expelling the remaining international inspectors and pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. A policy of rhetorical attack failed too, in other words: it played upon the paranoia of a regime whose leaders spend much of their days preparing for war with the United States.
Two policies now remain to be tried. One is economic sanctions. These failed in Iraq but might succeed in North Korea, which has no oil to export and is totally dependent on outside aid for survival. If, in addition to sanctions, the Chinese opened their border to North Korea, the flood of refugees might also lead to the end of the regime. Unfortunately, sanctions will not work and a refugee crisis cannot be provoked without the co-operation of South Korea, Japan and China (which is why Colin Powell is in Asia this weekend) – none of which is particularly eager to co-operate. The Japanese fear that the North Koreans, if cornered, will launch a nuclear-tipped missile at Tokyo. The South Koreans fear that Seoul might meet a similar fate. The Chinese see no need to help the Americans out of this mess – and are rumoured to be supporting North Korea’s intransigence, in the hopes that the US will be spooked into leaving the Korean peninsula altogether.
Then there is a military option – or is there? Opinions are divided here in Washington. Some say American planes could launch a simultaneous attack on North Korea’s nuclear reactor and on North Korea’s million-man army, which is lined up along the border. Others say that the price would be well over a million casualties, and possibly a nuclear strike on South Korea or Japan. Needless to say, the military option is considered controversial, at the very least.
And there we have it. Negotiation, raised rhetoric, sanctions, warfare: but if none of these work, or no one is willing to try them, then what is left? Nothing – which is precisely what the Bush administration has been doing. The rhetoric now shifts from week to week, ranging from “the axis of evil” to “yes, let’s negotiate”. The internal debate about what to do has deteriorated into an impasse. All of the key players are distracted by Iraq anyway – and no wonder. Faced with the conundrum of North Korea, wouldn’t you prefer to invade Baghdad too?