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President Obama’s North Korea policy has come to an
entirely predictable dead end. Having for two years correctly resisted
resuming the six party talks on the North’s nuclear-weapons program, Mr.
Obama is now pressuring South Korea to do just that. This is a
significant mistake. It would have been bad enough had Mr. Obama simply
picked up where the Bush administration left off in January 2009, but
restarting the talks now will signal weakness and indecisiveness.
Since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, Pyongyang has detonated its second
nuclear device and launched two unprovoked military attacks–torpedoing a
South Korean naval vessel last March and shelling Yeonpyeong Island in
November, killing several civilians. Even more significant was the
revelation of large, sophisticated uranium-enrichment facilities at
Yongbyon, and construction there of a new nuclear reactor to replace the
existing aged facility.
Resuming the six party talks, which include the two Koreas, China,
Japan, Russia and America, clearly has global ramifications. Pyongyang
and Tehran have cooperated closely on ballistic missiles and almost
certainly on nuclear matters, as the North’s construction of a reactor
in Syria, destroyed by Israel in 2007, demonstrates. It has long been a
mistake to treat these rogue states as unrelated threats, a point that
still eludes the Obama administration.
The talks themselves exemplify how, for almost a decade, Washington
has followed Beijing’s Korea policy as if it were its own. China does
not want a bellicose, nuclear North Korea destabilizing East Asia,
prompting Japan and others to seek nuclear weapons. But it has
definitely prized the North as a buffer state against U.S. forces in the
South. China would prefer a nonnuclear North Korea but has feared to
act on that goal lest the North itself collapse and the Koreas reunify.
The talks are Beijing’s mechanism for maintaining the uneasy equilibrium
of its contradictory policies, and keeping both the U.S. and North
Korea in line.
While South Koreans seem increasingly to be rejecting the six party
approach because of the North’s aggression, Mr. Obama is working hard to
squeeze President Lee Myung-bak to accept reopening the talks. Last
Wednesday, before a foreign-affairs meeting, Mr. Lee said his country
has “no choice but to resolve the problem of dismantling North Korea’s
nuclear program diplomatically through the six party talks.” But his
administration has yet to agree to a resumption of talks. Mr. Obama’s
representatives are descending on Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo this week and
next to torque up the pressure.
Washington should advocate America’s interests rather than China’s.
Our objective should be to increase pressure on Kim Jong Il’s regime,
hopefully leading to its collapse.
We should thoroughly isolate North Korea by denying it access to
international financial markets, ramping up efforts to prevent trade in
weapons- related materials and pressuring China to adhere to existing
U.N. sanctions resolutions. Opening North Korea to foreign commerce to
benefit its near-starving population, as some advocate, is utterly
fanciful. If the regime had ever cared about its people, they wouldn’t
be in such dire straits.
We should also dramatically expand preparations for Kim’s inevitable
demise. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy for Washington to see his death
only as a risk, rather than an opportunity. We should take every
advantage of the inevitable rivalry and confusion that will accompany
the transition, and use whatever levers are available to undermine the
regime. We must also plan to meet the North’s evident humanitarian
needs, whether or not there are massive refugee flows. Even if the
population stayed put after a regime collapse, the North’s misery would
still require urgent attention. And we must ensure that the North’s
weapons of mass destruction do not fall into the wrong hands.
Many of China’s younger leaders do not reflexively support Pyongyang.
Although their elders may be hopeless on the subject, the rising policy
makers must hear from us that peacefully reunifying Korea is in
Beijing’s long-term interests. Having a puppet state separating China
from U.S. forces may once have been attractive, but forward- looking
Chinese should not accept defending the North’s appalling record. This
will be a hard conversation, but we have never had meaningful
discussions with China on reunifying the Koreas.
While Mr. Obama is unlikely to shift his views voluntarily,
Washington’s politics changed dramatically in November while Pyongyang
was attacking the South and showing off its nuclear wares. After 10
years of error, we should recognize, better late than never, that
unifying Korea is key to Asian peace and stability.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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