The subtle shift taken toward North Korea on Tuesday by the Clinton Administration and the South Korean government represents a carefully qualified victory for doves over hawks in a quiet debate over what to do about North Korea's nuclear program.
The ultimate issue in this debate, which has been raging in both Washington and Seoul, extends far beyond the nuclear program itself to the future of the North Korean regime of President Kim Il Sung. Senior intelligence analysts believe that North Korea now views the nuclear-weapons program as the key to its survival.
And the outcome could affect non-proliferation policy elsewhere in the world, as the United States tries to prevent other regimes from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
No one on either side of the foreign policy dispute advocates the use of military force against North Korea. The question is not whether to choose force or negotiations, as it was in Vietnam. Rather, the issue is more like the Cold War arguments between liberals and conservatives about the Soviet Union--whether to accept the regime as a valid, long-term negotiating partner or to challenge and undermine it in any way possible.
The hawks have argued that the United States and its allies should confront Pyongyang with sanctions and military exercises, in hopes that the regime will be forced to spend more money and will be so economically strapped that it collapses.
By offering "carrots" such as possible diplomatic recognition and economic aid, the hawks say, Washington and Seoul are merely keeping the North Korean regime alive, enabling it to both threaten its neighbors and help other dangerous regimes around the world.
"Through these negotiations and carrots, you're helping the North Korean regime to survive. Over the next five years, it will develop its nuclear-weapons potential and also be able to keep selling missiles to countries like Iran and Syria," contends American Enterprise Institute scholar James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and a Pentagon official in the George Bush administration.
The doves counter that if North Korea is pushed too hard, its leadership could lash out with war or terrorism--and that, even if the Pyongyang government falls within the next couple of years, the result will be a bankrupt population even harder to absorb into a reunified country than was East Germany.
"We don't need to rush things," asserts one Clinton Administration official who is among the doves. "Time is on our side and Pyongyang will be undermined (over the long run) through economic development. Sooner or later, there will be peaceful reunification between North and South Korea, but gradually, five or 10 years down the road."
Quite a few of the hawks are former officials of the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations.
"The Bush Administration took what many observers would characterize as a hard line, refusing to offer any specific inducements or incentives to (North Korea) or even to hold political-level meetings with North Korean officials to try to work out a solution. . . ," Arnold Kanter, who was Bush's undersecretary of state for political affairs, observed last week at a symposium on North Korea.
"The Clinton Administration has tried a different tack: In a reversal of longstanding U.S. policy, senior Administration officials have held at least two rounds of direct, bilateral negotiations with their North Korean counterparts over the past several months. Another round is planned."
Kanter, who is now at the Santa Monica-based RAND think tank, said that the Clinton Administration's negotiations "have created at least the appearance that this North Korean stonewalling, far from imposing a cost or penalty, is being rewarded by continued American eagerness to negotiate further."
The hawks are particularly reluctant to see the United States cancel the annual Team Spirit military exercises by American and South Korean forces. The Clinton Administration has not officially called off these exercises, but at the moment there is no money in the budget for them.
Douglas Paal, a former National Security Council adviser on Asia policy in the Reagan and Bush administrations, noted recently that the Team Spirit exercises cost the United States about $500 million a year--but says that they are worth it because the North Koreans "have to start spending money and resources to counter it."
Similarly, the hawks favor sanctions to undermine the North Korean economy. By U.S. estimates, North Korea has had three years of negative economic growth. Its annual output is now less than one-tenth that of South Korea and by many accounts the Pyongyang regime is having trouble feeding the people of North Korea.
"We should begin now to design a package of sanctions focused on reducing or eliminating North Korean imports of oil. . . ," Kanter argued recently. "As the (Pyongyang) regime must surely understand, further significant reductions in oil exports would cripple, if not strangle, the already faltering North Korean economy with unpredictable, but surely serious, political consequences."
The doves believe that these pressures will not work. They say that sanctions would be effective only if they were supported by China, which is North Korea's old ally and neighbor and its main supplier of oil. So far, China has said that it will not support sanctions against North Korea, only a negotiated settlement.
"The Kim Il Sung regime is not likely to give up its nuclear option completely unless it is convinced that Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are ready for normalization and are not seeking to promote its collapse," argues Selig S. Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the most outspoken of the doves.
Harrison has been pushing for wide-ranging negotiations between the United States and North Korea, in which he says the American side should offer a series of economic and political rewards in exchange for an abandonment of North Korea's nuclear program.
There has been similar wrangling over strategy in Seoul. Some South Korean military and intelligence officials have warned that it is impossible to negotiate in any way with North Korea.
Nevertheless, when President Clinton announced at the White House on Tuesday that the United States is prepared to talk with North Korea about a "thorough, broad approach" for settling differences between the two countries, Harrison rejoiced.
"They (U.S. officials) have taken the first steps toward adopting the approach that I have been outlining for the past two years," he said. "Now I think the Administration should consider elevating these talks. I'm proposing that Clinton should meet Kim Il Sung at the United Nations."