F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the mark of a great intellect is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's mind and still be able to function. As the world braces for another North Korean missile test, his observation neatly sums up the harrowing dilemma faced by the United States, South Korea and Japan in dealing with the reclusive, totalitarian rulers in North Korea: Can they continue to pursue an engagement policy aimed at modifying the behavior of a thuggish, failing regime willing to starve its own people even as it pours scarce resources into producing new weapons of mass destruction? Or are the democratic allies drifting inexorably toward another crisis in Korea?
Five years after a landmark U.S.-North Korea nuclear accord was supposed to put a damper on perhaps the world's most dangerous flash point, persisting, if not deepening, tensions underscore the quandary. In recent weeks, the North Koreans have set off a cascade of provocative actions, from naval clashes and preparations to launch a missile capable of reaching the United States, to sandbagging North-South reconciliation talks and arresting a South Korean tourist and a Korean American businesswoman. All this despite the fact that Pyongyang has become the largest recipient of U.S. aid in East Asia, nearly $500 million since 1996.
The North Koreans' pattern of biting the hand that feeds them was much on the minds of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and President Bill Clinton when they met here July 2. They pointedly warned Pyongyang not to test the new long-range Taepo Dong missile, which could reach Alaska and Hawaii. Kim's visit had followed a North-South naval clash in the Yellow Sea. The fighting lasted nine days and left several dozen North Koreans dead. In the ultimate irony, a South Korean ship carrying a gift of fertilizer to North Korea had to change course to sail around the combat zone. At the same time, a loveboat was carrying South Korean tourists to idyllic Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, part of Kim's "sunshine policy" aimed at opening up the North.
What made these developments all the more disturbing is that the latest provocations occurred just when the Clinton administration thought it might be getting the situation under control. At the end of May, a team of U.S. officials had been allowed to visit a suspected nuclear-weapons site under construction at Kumchang-ri. After inspecting the site, they concluded its purpose was non-nuclear.
Meanwhile, Clinton had dispatched former Defense Secretary William J. Perry to Pyongyang to offer the North Koreans some incentives to behave or else. Perry, who is completing a congressionally required review of Korea policy, essentially presented North Korea with two alternate futures. The first is a path of cooperation filled with normalized relations and security guarantees from the United States and blandishments from South Korea and Japan if the North eschews missiles and nuclear weapons; the second is a path of isolation and confrontation. Perry is still waiting for an answer.
One might well ask, why deal with North Korea at all? For starters, it has some 600,000 troops and 11,000 artillery tubes deployed within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone separating North and South. Greater Seoul, with some 14 million people and, on any given day, perhaps 100,000 Americans, is as close to the DMZ as Dulles Airport is to downtown Washington. On top of that, the North Koreans have three generations of missiles, chemical and biological weapons and possibly a nuke or two in their basement. Moreover, theirs is a failing state, whose economy has shrunk by nearly 60% after nine years of contracting, with chronic food shortages that may have caused up to 1 million or more deaths over the past four years. North Korea is the proverbial elephant in the room.
North Korea's missile program compounds the dilemma. Unlike nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is not breaking any international law or treaty by developing missiles, however militarily destabilizing they may be. To the United States, the program is a double threat: North Korean missile exports to Iran and Pakistan destabilize Southwest Asia; the hard currency Pyongyang's earns is plowed back into missile development, posing new security threats to the United States, South Korea and Japan.
But for North Korea, whose conventional military forces have degraded substantially as its economy has collapsed, missiles are crucial as a deterrent to attack, as a potential bargaining chip and perhaps to hold the threat of nuclear blackmail over adversaries. When Perry raised the missile question, the North Koreans told him bluntly, "We will not be a Yugoslavia." With Pyongyang so closely tying its missiles to survival, it's unlikely that it will abandon its missile program, regardless of what goodies are offered or threats made.
Worse still is a habit instilled by the past six years of U.S. policy of rewarding bad behavior. It is a logic of "feed me or I'll kill you." Pyongyang has learned that Washington responds to provocations with goodies. Last September, after a report of a suspected secret nuclear site was published, the United States offered 600,000 tons of food in exchange for the right to inspect the site, even though Pyongyang tested a missile over Japanese airspace in the midst of negotiations.
The problem now is that North Korean behavior is testing the political limits of three democracies. For the U.S. Congress, Japanese Diet and Korean Assembly, it is increasingly difficult to justify giving taxpayers' money to mafia-like thugs who starve their own people, fire missiles over your territory, export weapons of mass destruction and peddle drugs and guns.
Kim has staked his political future on his "sunshine policy," a long-term approach aimed at fostering reform in North Korea. Hyundai, for example, cut a deal giving the North $906 million over six years for the rights to tourism at Mt. Kumgang. Yet, Pyongyang arrested a South Korean mother of two last month after a verbal exchange provoked by a North Korean official. That event in particular forced Kim, under fire from domestic critics, to toughen his policy by demanding more reciprocity from the North.
Similarly, Japanese bureaucrats and politicians are agonizing over how to respond to another missile launch. While few want to torpedo the nuclear deal with North Korea, to which Japan has committed $1 billion, legislation to impose sanctions and tighten export controls on Pyongyang are under discussion.
Then there is Congress. Even discounting partisanship, if North Korea does not respond positively to the Perry initiative, it will be exceedingly difficult for the administration to maintain its current policy direction. After all, if a cornucopia of goodies--from ending sanctions, normalizing relations and security assurances to promises of Japanese aid and major Korean investment--doesn't tempt Pyongyang to abandon its bellicose ways, the assumptions of U.S. policy need to be rethought.
The fundamental assumption undergirding the options that Perry outlined to Pyongyang is that North Korea's least bad choice is to follow a course of economic reform similar to China's. In doing so, it could revive its economy and thereby improve its chances for longer-term survival. It would, in effect, trade its military threat for economic benefits and cooperative relations with the West. But like Pyongyang's failure to respond seriously to Kim's overtures, demands for major reform may be perceived as undermining the regime's legitimacy and thus to be avoided.
The only way to really test the assumption is a willingness to disengage. If the collective response of the United States, Japan and South Korea is to cut aid and restrict contacts, a period of stewing in its own juices just might bring North Korea to the table. In any case, so long as U.S. military deterrence is in place, the North has no military option except its own suicide. If the North demands to have its cake and eat it, too, a bit of what the British used to call "masterly inactivity" may be its wisest course.