The Administration is talking itself into another foreign-policy debacle--this time over the serious issue of the North Korean nuclear program. If ever a situation cried out to be handled with care, precision, attention to detail and complete absence of confrontational rhetoric, this was it.
But the Administration has been all over the map; at one moment apparently preparing for imminent war by shipping Patriot missiles to South Korea, the next allowing former President Jimmy Carter to carry a diplomatic message from President Clinton to Kim Il Sung. These unexplained changes in tactics are confusing enough for Americans. Spare a thought for the North Koreans. How can they possibly understand American intentions? Before the crisis gets out of hand, it is time to pause and take stock.
Let us remind ourselves of the state of play. To listen to the bloodcurdling warnings of war from senators and syndicated columnists, one might think that North Korea possessed a sizable nuclear arsenal, together with delivery systems, and was about to bomb Seoul or Tokyo back to the Stone Age. The facts are different. All we know is in the negative: The U.N. nuclear regulatory agency cannot confirm that the North Koreans have not diverted enough plutonium from their nuclear reactors to enable them to make a bomb. The probability is that they have, but we have no information--or at least nothing has been shared with the American people--about whether a North Korean bomb exists or is close to existing. Last year, the State Department and CIA aired a public disagreement over this very point.
Assuming the North Koreans have a bomb, what, if anything, do they intend to do with it? Is it intended to defend the homeland against more powerful neighbors? To ward off absorption by the South? To extract money and international recognition in the manner of Ukraine? To bolster their bankrupt economy by selling a bomb or two to Iran, Libya or Iraq? "The fact of the matter is that we just don't know," says one American Asia expert.
This is not a basis for any sort of war, let alone one that would cost a great many American lives and leave the capital city of an American ally in ruins. The absurd aspect of all this is that everyone realizes--the North Koreans included--that the war talk is empty, that the President is not going to launch war. To do so, Clinton would have to abandon everything else in his program, as well as run the risk of bringing his presidency to an inglorious end as Americans take to the streets to protest the death toll.
This is where the seeds of the debacle are being sown. By allowing talk of sanctions, which everyone, including an official CIA assessment, knows will not work, by failing to rebut the foolish war talk, the Administration is climbing yet another mountain of rhetoric from which it will have to stage yet another ignominious climb down.
What is to be done? First, turn down the megaphones, defuse the crisis atmosphere. Nuclear proliferation is a very serious matter; it will be with us for many years to come. "Doing something" is not enough; we need to be effective. If we talk tough but back off just before the point of no return, as will inevitably happen when the American people reject the appalling costs of a war, U.S. credibility on the issue of non-proliferation will be fatally impaired. The result? Perhaps Algeria--neighbor to Libya and with Islamic fundamentalists waiting in the wings--will decide its time has come.
Once the spotlight that Kim Il Sung so desperately craves has been turned off, the real work can begin. The main actors should be China, Japan and South Korea. They are all adamantly opposed to any North Korean bomb and, unlike the United States, have real leverage through oil, money and friendship. By turning the issue into an exclusively American interest, the Administration has made it more difficult for these countries to cooperate without appearing to be America's running dogs. The South Korean government is already encountering domestic opposition on this point.
Between them, these countries have an excellent shot at settling this issue, perhaps not as quickly as the United States might wish. Traditional Asian concerns for "face" may drag out the process. However, this issue has been brewing since 1989. There is nothing so decisively special about the current standoff to warrant the overheated talk of crisis. Quiet but firm diplomacy exercised through friends and partners has a much better chance of success than hot words and idle threats that no one believes.