"The land of lousy options." That is what a senior Pentagon official recently labeled North Korea. Sadly, many of the dilemmas facing President Bush and his administration parallel what President Clinton was confronted with in his first weeks in the White House a decade ago.
In February 1993, one month into the Clinton presidency, North Korea unexpectedly denied inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency access to nuclear facilities that were supposed to be open to examination according to the terms of a multinational agreement signed a year earlier. Since it was widely suspected that North Korea had already processed spent fuel from nuclear reactors into weapons-grade plutonium, every nuclear shift by the government of then-President Kim Il Sung was cause for alarm.
North Korea continued to up the ante. During the following months, Pyongyang worked to hide the spent nuclear fuel so the world could not know how much plutonium the country had processed. Some 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods went missing. IAEA inspectors, when allowed back into the Hermit Kingdom, were denied substantive visits to North Korean nuclear facilities.
By spring 1994, the U.S. viewed North Korea as what then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry called "a very substantial near-term crisis." Clinton began considering military options for destroying North Korea's accelerating nuclear weapons work. All with good reason, given that North Korea was, and remains, a nation of diffracted logic.
As North Korea's nuclear fuel reprocessing became a national security worry, the U.S. knew that as many as 2 million North Koreans were starving to death because of widespread famine. Of particular alarm were reports, from intelligence and food aid sources, suggesting that starving its people was, in part, North Korean government policy, reasoning that the loss of its Soviet benefactor and its own agricultural and technological ineptitude meant the country would need to shrink its population by as much as 20% to survive in its chosen political and economic isolation.
This was just the latest bizarre twist from North Korea but was the kind of unpredictable behavior that gave the Clinton administration cause for alarm.
North Korea had a track record of provocative, violent behavior toward South Korea and its allies: political assassinations, kidnappings, terrorist bombings. Then there were downright weird episodes that read like a cross between Tom Clancy and James Bond bad guys, including digging tunnels under the demilitarized zone to secret troops and tanks behind South Korean defense lines for a surprise attack and threatening to demolish dams on the northern side of the Han River to send billions of metric tons of water raging into Seoul. Now add nuclear weapons to the country's Scud and Nodong missiles, which are capable of reaching Japan and South Korea, and the developing Taepodong missile, which can reach U.S. territory, and the bad outcomes swamp the good.
It was for this reason that Clinton pursued two avenues with North Korea. One was to build up the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula by sending additional troops and night-vision-equipped helicopters and deploying defensive Patriot missiles around Seoul. He also secretly prepared a military strike that would eliminate Pyongyang's plutonium program but not loose deadly radiation. The other avenue was to allow former President Carter to engage the North Koreans diplomatically.
Carter's talks with North Korea made clear that Kim Il Sung was playing what one analyst has come to call the "crazy fearsome cripple" game: presenting an unstable, crazy face acquiring fearsome nuclear weapons and long-range missiles while also showing the weakness of crippling food and energy shortages. In June 1994, Carter met with Kim ll Sung and persuaded the North Korean leader to freeze his country's nuclear weapons program and allow IAEA inspectors to work unencumbered. Somewhat to the frustration of the Clinton White House, the former president also committed Washington to negotiations with Pyongyang and wrongly suggested that economic sanctions against North Korea would be lifted.
Nonetheless, the outcome was a framework that got the U.S. what it needed most: an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, while also delivering energy aid to North Korea, probably what North Korea was pursuing all along.
Some would call this appeasement. But a dangerous moment on the Korean Peninsula was defused, U.S. economic and security interests in the region were protected and for a decade North Korea remained boxed in by U.S. military power and the suspicious scrutiny of Japan and South Korea, as well as old-time allies China and Russia.
Now the Bush administration is facing a shockingly similar scenario, with North Korea behaving petulantly and issuing bombastic threats, neighboring nations feeling insecure and the prospect of war looming large. The only difference is that this White House is saddled with its "axis of evil" language, though allowing Clinton's former global troubleshooter, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to talk with the North Koreans has injected a helpful air of flexibility.
What does North Korea want? The tools to keep Kim Jong Il and the regime begun by his father afloat. Specifically, the completion of two proliferation-resistant light-water nuclear energy reactors promised by Japan and South Korea in 1994, deliveries of fuel oil and food aid, and a nonaggression pledge and general attention from the U.S.
There is much the U.S. should want from North Korea. For starters, the cessation of Scud missile sales that now make North Korea the 7-Eleven of ballistic weaponry; international oversight of North Korea's nuclear programs that could put weapons material or know-how into the hands of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Al Qaeda and other bad actors; adherence to basic human rights, like access to food regardless of political or military status; and even the smallest opportunity to use trade, investment and diplomacy to crack North Korea's paranoid isolation as a way of chipping at a rotting totalitarian foundation.
In the land of lousy options, the only win is to keep finding better options. Extracting changes from North Korea that will enhance the security of the U.S. and our allies without selling our democratic soul is not weakness or appeasement. It's good policy.