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Time to Force an Endgame

July 11, 1999|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a State Department policy advisor from 1989-93

WASHINGTON — F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the mark of a great intellect is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's mind and still be able to function. As the world braces for another North Korean missile test, his observation neatly sums up the harrowing dilemma faced by the United States, South Korea and Japan in dealing with the reclusive, totalitarian rulers in North Korea: Can they continue to pursue an engagement policy aimed at modifying the behavior of a thuggish, failing regime willing to starve its own people even as it pours scarce resources into producing new weapons of mass destruction? Or are the democratic allies drifting inexorably toward another crisis in Korea?

Five years after a landmark U.S.-North Korea nuclear accord was supposed to put a damper on perhaps the world's most dangerous flash point, persisting, if not deepening, tensions underscore the quandary. In recent weeks, the North Koreans have set off a cascade of provocative actions, from naval clashes and preparations to launch a missile capable of reaching the United States, to sandbagging North-South reconciliation talks and arresting a South Korean tourist and a Korean American businesswoman. All this despite the fact that Pyongyang has become the largest recipient of U.S. aid in East Asia, nearly $500 million since 1996.

The North Koreans' pattern of biting the hand that feeds them was much on the minds of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and President Bill Clinton when they met here July 2. They pointedly warned Pyongyang not to test the new long-range Taepo Dong missile, which could reach Alaska and Hawaii. Kim's visit had followed a North-South naval clash in the Yellow Sea. The fighting lasted nine days and left several dozen North Koreans dead. In the ultimate irony, a South Korean ship carrying a gift of fertilizer to North Korea had to change course to sail around the combat zone. At the same time, a loveboat was carrying South Korean tourists to idyllic Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, part of Kim's "sunshine policy" aimed at opening up the North.

What made these developments all the more disturbing is that the latest provocations occurred just when the Clinton administration thought it might be getting the situation under control. At the end of May, a team of U.S. officials had been allowed to visit a suspected nuclear-weapons site under construction at Kumchang-ri. After inspecting the site, they concluded its purpose was non-nuclear.

Meanwhile, Clinton had dispatched former Defense Secretary William J. Perry to Pyongyang to offer the North Koreans some incentives to behave or else. Perry, who is completing a congressionally required review of Korea policy, essentially presented North Korea with two alternate futures. The first is a path of cooperation filled with normalized relations and security guarantees from the United States and blandishments from South Korea and Japan if the North eschews missiles and nuclear weapons; the second is a path of isolation and confrontation. Perry is still waiting for an answer.

One might well ask, why deal with North Korea at all? For starters, it has some 600,000 troops and 11,000 artillery tubes deployed within 60 miles of the demilitarized zone separating North and South. Greater Seoul, with some 14 million people and, on any given day, perhaps 100,000 Americans, is as close to the DMZ as Dulles Airport is to downtown Washington. On top of that, the North Koreans have three generations of missiles, chemical and biological weapons and possibly a nuke or two in their basement. Moreover, theirs is a failing state, whose economy has shrunk by nearly 60% after nine years of contracting, with chronic food shortages that may have caused up to 1 million or more deaths over the past four years. North Korea is the proverbial elephant in the room.

North Korea's missile program compounds the dilemma. Unlike nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is not breaking any international law or treaty by developing missiles, however militarily destabilizing they may be. To the United States, the program is a double threat: North Korean missile exports to Iran and Pakistan destabilize Southwest Asia; the hard currency Pyongyang's earns is plowed back into missile development, posing new security threats to the United States, South Korea and Japan.

But for North Korea, whose conventional military forces have degraded substantially as its economy has collapsed, missiles are crucial as a deterrent to attack, as a potential bargaining chip and perhaps to hold the threat of nuclear blackmail over adversaries. When Perry raised the missile question, the North Koreans told him bluntly, "We will not be a Yugoslavia." With Pyongyang so closely tying its missiles to survival, it's unlikely that it will abandon its missile program, regardless of what goodies are offered or threats made.

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