Keep North Korea on Life Support


Mar 27, 2001

By Michael Parks and Gregory F. Treverton

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on March 27, 2001.

SEOUL -- The summit meeting between President Bush and South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung this month was a diplomatic train wreck; it should never have happened. Almost none of the administration's Asia team was in place and it showed. The meeting injected dangerous confusion into a relationship that both countries regard as crucial.

But Bush made one thing very clear: He does not trust North Korea and he wants a policy that starts with that and not with assumptions that Pyongyang has been won over by Kim's "sunshine" policy and is abandoning its totalitarian ways. Republicans in Congress have said the same thing even more emphatically.

While that view is understandable, the Bush administration in the end will come out about where the Clinton administration was because there is not much alternative. The Clinton policy was based on the agreed framework of 1994, in which the United States offered food, fuel and, ultimately, nuclear power reactors in exchange for the North's shutting down its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The Clinton administration's creativity was born of desperation. Having tried everything but war to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile program -- and it seriously contemplated war in 1994 -- it opted, in the agreed framework, for carrots instead of sticks. It made a deal with the devil.

The policy drew immediate opposition, but seven years ago, the near-term collapse of the North Korean regime looked distinctly possible. Today, the policy amounts to keeping the North on life support while hoping that it will gradually reform under the pressure of its own economic disaster.

So, too, does South Korea's "sunshine" policy look dimmer than it did last summer. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il probably will make his promised return visit to Seoul by early summer, but neither the South Korean government nor its many domestic critics feel that he has seriously reciprocated Kim Dae Jung's overture. Security issues have yet to be integrated into the North-South process, with the North continuing to confine them to its dealings with the United States. Major economic initiatives by southern firms in the North, like Hyundai's Kumgang tourism project, are turning out to be costly sinkholes.

Still, the basic argument for keeping North Korea on life support is simple both for the U.S. and South Korea: Its collapse would be disaster. West Germany's absorption of East Germany after 1990 is still far from complete, and it has been hugely expensive. But West Germany was much richer and much bigger by comparison to the East than South Korea is to the North. For the South to quickly absorb the North would condemn both to poverty. And a unified Korea surely would regard the help it received from its friends, Japan and the United States in particular, as far too little. There also would be a risk that it might retain parts of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Turning tougher if the North does not begin to reciprocate looks attractive in Washington. But turning tougher also would open a significant gap between the Bush administration and Kim Dae Jung, who has two more years to serve. After the summit, even South Koreans who have opposed "sunshine" worried that the Bush team might be tempted to cast North Korea as the rogue enemy, in part to justify building the controversial national missile defense system. Doing so would unleash real anti-Americanism in South Korea. More to the point, it would encourage the North to replay its nuclear card, putting the Bush administration in the box where the Clinton administration found itself in 1994.

There is no real alternative to engagement and life support. But the Bush team might improve on the Clinton policy in two respects. First, patient diplomacy might succeed where it has failed in the past in convincing the North that conventional power plants would serve its interests as well as or better than nuclear ones.

Second, as Washington reengages Pyongyang, it and Seoul (and Tokyo) might establish an agreed road map for what they want from North Korea and what they will do in return. By spelling out, for instance, what North Korea needs to do to win U.S. support for joining the World Bank, it would reduce the confusion in Pyongyang, not to mention between Seoul and Washington. Such a road map had been precluded in the case of North Korea by the guerrilla war between the Clinton administration and Republicans in Congress. Bush has a chance to do better.

Michael Parks and Gregory F. Treverton are fellows at the Pacific Council on International Policy. Parks is also a visiting professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, and Treverton is a senior consultant at RAND.

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