North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb. We have to be very firm about it. --Bill Clinton, "Meet the Press," Nov. 7
When George Bush appeared to waver in the face of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Margaret Thatcher was there to buck him up with her famous "Remember, George. This is no time to go wobbly." Alas, Thatcher is no more. Bush, too, has been retired. What we have now is Bill Clinton, alone and uncertain, trying manfully to face down Saddam's Asian equivalent, Kim Il Sung.
Alas, Clinton has gone wobbly. In dealing with the North Korean bomb, his operating principle seems to be: Talk loudly (see above) and carry a big carrot.
Our policy has degenerated into nothing but carrots: offers of diplomatic recognition, trade, aid and, most important of all, cancellation of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. Team Spirit, as they are called, is not just vital to maintaining South Korea's defenses. It is the foremost symbolic expression of America's commitment--a solemn, binding treaty commitment--to the defense of South Korea.
In our U.N. talks with North Korea, what did we ask in exchange for abandoning Team Spirit? A resumption of North Korean talks with South Korea (more talk), and a resumption of regular inspections of the Yongbyon nuclear complex by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Pathetic. Only last spring the United States was calling these very inspections totally inadequate. Why? Because they do not include inspections of two undeclared sites that we suspect contain the nuclear wastes that result from plutonium reprocessing.
Regular inspections of self-declared sites are a joke. We know from our experience with Iraq that a country bent on developing the bomb can comply fully with regular IAEA inspections and build a massive nuclear program undetected.
Hence our alarm when the North Koreans blocked off two undeclared sites in February. Since then, North Korea has blocked regular inspections of their declared sites as well. What did we do? At the United Nations, we offered to cancel Team Spirit for a restoration of the crumb of regular inspections--and to postpone demands for special inspection of the two plutonium waste sites until future negotiations, to occur after the North Koreans have pocketed Team Spirit.
Bill Clinton seems to think he is dealing with some Florida congressman whose NAFTA vote can be bought with a dam and a mess of tomatoes. Kim Il Sung is no Florida pol. He is Genghis Khan with a telegraph, god-king of a slave state, belligerent, paranoid and determined. To assume, as did even the Bush State Department, that Kim craves not power but trade and a dash of respectability is not just foolish but dangerous. Dangerous because the more concessions we give the North Koreans, the more time we give them to build the bomb--the bomb Clinton insists North Korea cannot be allowed to develop.
"We have to be very firm about it," says Clinton. How is that firmness manifesting itself? Through news leaks, the military option has already been ruled out. And at his press conference with South Korean President Kim Young Sam last week, Clinton in effect ruled out even economic sanctions. Why? Because China and Japan won't go along.
Letting other countries tell the United States what it cannot do is becoming a habit with Clinton. Britain and France demur on Bosnia; Clinton caves. Japan and China won't acquiesce on Korea; Clinton caves again. If it really matters--as Bush said Kuwait mattered and as Clinton says the North Korean bomb matters--you don't slink away. You make the others accede to your plans or you prepare to go it alone.
It is simply not good enough to say that China will not come on board. We should make it clear to China that the North Korean bomb is for us Item No. 1 on the Sino-American agenda. And that if the Chinese do not support us, they can forget about most-favored-nation trading status.
The Clinton-Kim Young Sam news conference on Tuesday rang with polite but unmistakable discord. South Korea is unhappy with American weakness. Small countries, however, cannot go it alone. They are required to acquiesce. Superpowers are not. But they need leaders prepared to brandish not just carrots but sticks. At the press conference, Clinton spoke about our "good-faith effort to reach out and reason with North Korea." Reaching out to the unreachable and reasoning with the unreasonable is noble. It is also futile.
By year's end, the soft-touch approach will have run its course. There will be no more room for wobble. The choice will be blockade or surrender.