Now Is No Time to Downplay North Korea

Yesterday, North Korea declared all its political and military agreements with the South "dead"--the latest in a string of confrontational moves taken by Pyongyang against Seoul and the U.S. In the past few weeks, the North confirmed it possessed enough plutonium for four to five nuclear warheads; threatened to retain its nuclear weapons until America withdraws its nuclear protection from the South; denounced the appointment of Seoul's new unification minister as "an open provocation"; and proclaimed that a routine South Korean military exercise had so inflamed tensions that "a war may break out any time."

The Associated Press concluded from all this that North Korea "sounded open to new ideas to defuse nuclear-tinged tensions." Some State Department quarters will warmly receive that analysis; a senior careerist at State once called earlier North Korean provocations "a desperate cry for help." Others will say Kim Jong Il just wants attention, that these moves are simply a "coming out" exercise after his recent illness.

Neglecting North Korea is a dangerous gamble with very high stakes.

Most troubling is Mrs. Clinton's unwillingness to acknowledge North Korea's uranium-enrichment efforts. In her confirmation hearing, she said these efforts were "never quite verified." Although we know precious little about the North's progress, including how much weapons-grade uranium may have been produced, Mrs. Clinton cast doubt on whether uranium enrichment was a serious subject at all. Pressed on this point on Jan. 23 at State's daily briefing, the department spokesman said "we don't know" whether such a program exists.

Of course, the easiest way to solve a difficult problem is to conclude there really isn't one. (This was John Kennedy's technique for eliminating the U.S. "missile gap" with the Soviet Union, which he had deployed so effectively against Richard Nixon.) For years, State's permanent bureaucracy has been trying to wish away North Korea's uranium-enrichment program. If President Barack Obama's State Department takes this strategy, Pyongyang will once again have occasion to contemplate the profound wisdom of the ancient North Korean riddle: Why negotiate with the Americans when we do so well by letting them negotiate with themselves?

Equally tempting--and equally dangerous--is the notion that North Korea is not a truly pressing problem. After all, the argument goes, the North already has nuclear weapons, so unlike Iran there is no line to prevent it from crossing. Accordingly, there is no urgency to reconvene the six-party talks with the Koreas, Russia, China and Japan to end the North's nuclear program, and certainly not to take any concrete measures to apply meaningful pressure to Kim Jong Il's regime.

By contrast, George Mitchell, the newly appointed special envoy to the Middle East, arrived in the region five days after being named, and the endless cycle of meetings on Iran's nuclear program among the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members and Germany will resume in days. The special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan is gearing up rapidly. And there's now even a special envoy for climate change.

But so far, there is no special envoy for North Korea. Mrs. Clinton's first press conference last Tuesday provided another opportunity to announce the position and name the envoy, but she passed, even though she was asked specifically about the six-party talks. There are persuasive arguments against reviving the unhappy Clinton administration practice of unleashing numerous Big Beast envoys in the State Department. But make no mistake: In such an ecosystem, if your issue does not have a Big Beast, then it is not a Big Issue.

The belief that North Korea is not an imminent danger is closely related to the fallacy that it is "merely" a threat to peace and security in Northeast Asia, a longstanding State Department fixation. In fact, North Korea is an urgent threat in the Middle East, both because of its nuclear program and its strenuous efforts to proliferate ballistic missile technology there.

The clone of North Korea's Yongbyon reactor--under construction in Syria until it was destroyed by Israel in September 2007--demonstrates beyond debate how the North's nuclear program contributes directly and palpably to Middle East tensions. Trying to ignore or downplay the relationship guarantees that we will resolve neither Pyongyang's, nor Tehran's, nuclear ambitions.

Ironically, North Korea's provocations may well precipitate the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to continue the six-party talks. If so, the North will have succeeded yet again, suckering Washington into more fruitless negotiations which have no prospect of eliminating the North Korean threat. By whittling away our time, they will continue to prevent the U.S. from implementing stronger measures to undermine Kim Jong Il's regime.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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