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Facing up to Pyongyang

Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal With a Nuclear North Korea; Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki; McGraw-Hill: 230 pp., $19.95 In North Korea: An American Travels Through an Imprisoned Nation; Nanchu with Xing Hang; McFarland & Co.: 198 pp., $29.95 paper

September 21, 2003|Warren I. Cohen | Warren I. Cohen is distinguished university professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government calmly assures the American people there is no crisis in Korea. To anyone who pays the slightest attention to the affairs of East Asia, the administration's rhetoric is arrant nonsense. North Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, almost certainly already has the nuclear weapons President George W. Bush once declared he would never permit it to have, and it is poised to produce many more. It has missiles that threaten our Japanese ally and huge conventional forces and weaponry that could obliterate Seoul, capital of our South Korean ally, in a matter of hours. It is working on missiles that can reach anywhere in the United States. Perhaps worst of all, it is a desperate regime with a failed economy that is shrinking rapidly and that manages to stay afloat by selling weapons to anyone willing to pay for them. It has sold missiles to several Middle Eastern countries, and there is no reason to doubt that it would sell nuclear weapons to Osama bin Laden if the price was right. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, What do you mean by crisis?

Led by "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, North Korea has an incredibly nasty government, brutal to its own people -- allowing more than a million of them to die of starvation in the early 1990s -- and dangerous to the rest of the world. Washington's demand for regime change is easily understood, and few anywhere in the world would mourn its disappearance. The United States unquestionably has the military power to crush North Korea, but not without triggering a war on the Korean Peninsula that would kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and tens of thousands of Americans -- and could conceivably go nuclear. Our friends in Seoul are understandably horrified by the thought that hard-liners in Washington, opposed to negotiating with Kim, might choose the military option. North Korea's neighbors -- China, Japan and Russia, as well as South Korea -- are adamantly opposed to using force to eliminate North Korea's nuclear threat. Moreover, were Kim's regime to collapse tomorrow, the South Korean economy would be severely strained by the need to govern and support the desperately poor people of the North. The Chinese -- and probably the Russians too -- would use force to keep refugees from finding food and shelter in their bordering territories.

None of the countries of the region takes issue with the American desire to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. All would like some sort of regime change, but they want it to come gradually as a result of economic reforms, perhaps on the Chinese model, that would enable the North Korean people to live decently and not be a burden to those around them.

In brief, although the United States would like to cleanse North Korea of missiles, nuclear weapons, its huge army and its Dear Leader, it has no way to accomplish all these goals. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and Mike Mochizuki, a George Washington University professor who has worked at Brookings and Rand Corp., an independent public policy center based in Santa Monica, have put together what they call a "grand bargain." Proposed in their new book, "Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea," it is a brilliant scheme for negotiations designed to gain the United States its essential security objectives -- virtually everything Washington wants, except regime change. If it works, it should satisfy everyone but Vice President Dick Cheney and the ideologically rigid undersecretary of State, John R. Bolton, perhaps the only man in the world who can make Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage sound like a dove.

O'Hanlon and Mochizuki understand that Pyongyang can't be trusted, that it has violated past agreements and will not hesitate to renege on new ones if it can get away with it. They have devised verifiable steps for the gradual elimination of North Korea's nuclear facilities, the reduction of its armed forces, an end to its missile sales and the introduction of Chinese-style economic reforms. Non-nuclear energy assistance and development support needed urgently by Pyongyang would be provided in return by the United States and its friends only gradually -- and only after verification of actions required of North Korea. If Kim buys the package, the Americans also would agree to diplomatic relations and promise not to attack North Korea, as Pyongyang has long demanded.

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