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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.
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
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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