Why the Bush Policy Is Failing in North Korea

News Abroad
tags: North Korea

Mr. Matray is the chairman of the history department at California State University, Chico. He is the author of The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy In Korea, 1941-1950, which won the Phi Alpha Theta Best Book Prize in 1986, and editor of Historical Dictionary of the Korean War, which won Choice magazine's Outstanding Academic Book Award. His latest book, East Asia and the United States: An Encyclopedia of Relations Since 1784, was published in October 2002.

On February 10 Peter Jennings reported on ABC’s "Evening News" North Korea’s public announcement that it possessed nuclear weapons. He then asked Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz what the Bush administration had done to cause Pyongyang to take this dramatic step. Raddatz gave the standard explanation that it was impossible to know what motivated the behavior of the eccentric and impenetrable North Korea. Two days later on "Saturday Night Live" Kim Jong Il impersonator Horatio Sanz did Raddatz’s work for her. “What Kim Jong Il want?” he asked. “What his demand? Well I tell you his demand! Demand number one: United States get off North Korea case. Take a step back, Jack! We don’t bother nobody.”

That a comedian can so easily and accurately explain North Korea’s recent outburst while a prominent U.S. television news anchor cannot helps account for why so few Americans have any understanding of the current crisis on the Korean peninsula. From the moment it took office, the Bush administration has followed an intentionally provocative policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with the ultimate objective of achieving regime change in Pyongyang. Its first act was to terminate bilateral negotiations based on the argument that North Korea could not be trusted because it was not fulfilling its agreements, but without providing any evidence to support this claim. The United States also ended support for South Korea’s policy of seeking engagement with the DPRK that was promoting peace and stability on the peninsula.

Professor Victor D. Cha of Georgetown University wrote in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs that the Bush administration was following a policy toward North Korea that he labeled “hawk engagement” to build international support for action to accelerate the collapse of the DPRK. Adopting a confrontational approach, Washington set conditions for cooperation that it knew Pyongyang never would accept, ensuring rejection and creating justification for charges of unreasonable inflexibility. President George W. Bush’s first step was to delay implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework that provided for the DPRK to halt its nuclear weapons program in return for fuel oil, $4.5 billion to construct two nuclear-powered electricity plants that did not produce weapons-grade (plutonium) waste, and negotiations to normalize bilateral relations.

Hampering Bush’s strategy was the refusal of the Republic of Korea (ROK) to substitute provocation for conciliation in relations with North Korea. Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11. Four months later, Bush in his State of the Union address declared that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil” that included Iran and Iran. Thereafter, his announcement of intentions to topple Iraq’s regime naturally caused DPRK’s leaders to expect the same treatment. When North Korea admitted to U.S. diplomats in October 2002 that it had a secret uranium (not plutonium) enrichment program, it was an act of deterrence that Washington exploited to justify halting fuel shipments. Pyongyang then reopened its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and expelled U.N. inspectors, creating optimism in the Bush administration that the world would unite behind imposing economic sanctions on the DPRK leading to the demise of the Communist regime.

At first, “hawk engagement” experienced success. The U.N. Security Council considered placing the North Korean nuclear issue on its agenda and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the DPRK’s main supplier of food, fuel, and aid, began applying pressure on Pyongyang to end its nuclear program. But it was the swift U.S. military victory in Iraq that caused North Korea to drop a demand for bilateral talks. In April 2003, China acted as mediator at a meeting in Beijing between U.S. and DPRK representatives that resulted in Russia, South Korea, and Japan joining these three nations in negotiations to end the North Korean nuclear dispute. When the Six-Party Talks convened in August, however, the DPRK could defy the Bush administration’s demands to unilaterally disarm because of dead American soldiers in Iraq and massive U.S. budget deficits.

South Korea consistently has opposed the U.S. pursuit of regime change in North Korea because it risks war or premature reunification and the prospect of paying an enormous price in either blood and destruction or economic debilitation. Seoul instead has tried to expand political and diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang, negotiating assorted joint economic ventures and even conducting bilateral military discussions. Russia and the PRC, and to a lesser extent Japan, also have favored engagement with North Korea. Criticism of the United States for inflexibility grew after it rejected the DPRK’s offer in February 2004 to freeze its nuclear program in return for aid at the second round of Six-Party Talks. The Bush administration stood alone against concessions prior to North Korean proof of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID).

Billed as a compromise, U.S. negotiators presented a proposal in June at the third session of Six-Party Talks that was in fact just more “hawk engagement.” To save its strategy, the Bush administration would allow China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to provide aid immediately to North Korea, including tons of heavy fuel oil every month, after a commitment from Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs. Washington would issue a “provisional” guarantee not to invade North Korea or seek to overthrow the DPRK. Also, direct talks would begin about lifting U.S. economic sanctions against North Korea in place since the Korean War. After three months, aid would continue only if Pyongyang allowed international inspections and disclosed the full nature of its facilities, dismantled them, and then shipped them out of the country.

If the DPRK accepted the U.S. plan, its survival would depend on fulfillment of promises from a Bush administration dedicated to its destruction. Pyongyang naturally rejected the “sham offer” and countered with “reward for freeze” or receipt of aid before gradual movement toward CVID. Following U.S. rejection, it added as conditions that Washington provide energy aid, lift economic sanctions, and delist North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism. The DPRK also refused to attend Six-Party Talks in September, pointing to increased U.S. spy plane overflights as evidence of Bush’s hostile intent. Further proof justifying its decision came in October when Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which banned economic aid to North Korea unless it made progress on human rights. The bill also allocated $4 million for radio broadcasts into the DPRK promoting democracy and $20 million annually until 2008 to fund grants to private groups for programs fostering human rights and the development of a market economy in North Korea.

Despite claims to the contrary, the DPRK hoped that the U.S. presidential election would bring regime change in the United States. Bush’s reelection brought word from North Korea that it would be “quite possible” to resolve the crisis if the United States moderated its policy. On January 14 Pyongyang announced that it not only would return to the Six-Party Talks, but “respect and treat [the United States] as a friend unless [it] slanders the [DPRK’s] system and interferes in its internal affairs.” Six days later, Bush in his inaugural speech dedicated his second term to the achievement of “the great objective of ending tyranny” around the globe. Condoleezza Rice, in her confirmation hearings for secretary of state, included North Korea in a list of six “outposts of tyranny.” Meanwhile, U.S. officials traveled to Beijing to present evidence that North Korea had sold processed uranium to Libya, relying on what Selig Harrison labeled “sketchy data.”

During early February, the Bush administration reportedly was developing new strategies to choke off North Korea’s last meager sources of income. When the DPRK publicly announced that it had nuclear weapons, repeating what its representative had stated prior to September, it was reacting to these latest U.S. provocations. Its statement declared that it had “manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s undisguised policy to isolate and stifle” it. Bush’s “true intention” was not only to continue the aggressive policy “pursued by the first-term office, but to escalate it.” When Washington rejected bilateral negotiations, a DPRK diplomat terminated the disarmament negotiations, declaring that “Six-party talks is old story. No more.” The real issue, he insisted, was whether the United States intended to attack.

Still committed to “hawk engagement,” the Bush administration has begun preparations to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council to seek international sanctions against the DPRK. Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, however, has firmly opposed a course of action that could end any chance of Pyongyang rejoining the talks. One ROK official has argued that since the DPRK has yet to stage a nuclear test, “it is early for us to call the North a nuclear state.” And a Russian legislator has blamed “Washington’s excessively harsh stance” for thwarting “attempts to reach a compromise.” The PRC has been urging patience and restraint, not desiring a nuclear neighbor, but also not wanting the DPRK to collapse, sending a flood of refugees to China.

North Korea’s neighbors do not view the DPRK as an imminent threat because they are certain that Pyongyang would not use nuclear weapons, except in response to a U.S. attack, when doing so would assure destruction of the Communist system it is so desperate to defend. General Leon J. LaPorte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, reiterated another justification last fall for U.S. policy when he voiced increasing concern that “North Korea, in its desire for hard currency, would sell weapons-grade plutonium to some terrorist organizations.” But U.S. policy has eliminated Pyongyang’s options and thereby encouraged a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as it has provoked the current crisis. In a February 9 article in the New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof reminds us that, “as best we know,” the DPRK did not make one nuclear weapon before Bush became president.

Even if North Korea ended its nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration still would work to destroy the DPRK, just as it would have invaded Iraq regardless of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. During a 2002 interview, U.S. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton took a book titled The End of North Korea off a shelf and slapped it on the table. “That,” he said, “is our policy.” Pursuit of this course “for the last four years,” Kristof writes, “has only strengthened Mr. Kim and allowed him to expand his nuclear arsenal several fold.” Commenting on the DPRK, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said on February 10 that “I don’t think that anyone would characterize the leadership in that country as being restrained.” Rumsfeld and his boss should look in the mirror.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/3/2005

It is really puzzling (might look funny to more light-hearted observers) why is it that no North Korea's, or Iran's for that matter, neighboring country who undoubtedly has to worry the most about the nuclear developments of their neighbors, are not the ones who are raising the stink, but the US, the superpower that is the least likely to be attacked by those "evil" regimes/ nations. The US is not only in the avangard of the troubled, but as it became a historical tradition
(not only Iraq, but Cuba comes to mind, as well),
started the whole "noise and furor", and diligently feeds into it.
South Korea, the first state that should have been scared
to death, is not really looked much troubled even by the recent anouncement that North Korea posesses several nuclear warheads?! Chinese, that certainly don't rub up their palms learning those news are not much concerned
either. Neither are Russians, though they are not delighted at all with the latest developments.
So why is this country, situated thousands miles away and maintaining its gegemonic miltary presence in South East Asia and in surrounding this area regions, (to be exact - its economic, financial and political elite) is allegedly afraid more than anyone else?
There is only one logical and factual explanation to the puzzle: 'cause this country, provided it considers benefitial for its "national interests" to go "all in"
against Koreans, might not get unscathed out of the agression, with such realization impeding imperialistic designs of the American power-holders.
In fact many in South Korea are coming today to the understanding that without constant pressure and intimidation, coming from the Big American Brother the two Koreas could have been peacefully united to the mutual desire of their own people probably for as long, as 5-6 years by now,... but that would unjustify the US presence in that region and endanger the US dominant position there, in favor of China, united Korean nation, and, perhaps, non-allied India.
I don't recall anything resembling a current uproar coming from the Washington when another truly terrorist
regime acquired nuclear weapons: Pakistanian(?!)
Ooops! My mistake - they had been killing only thousands of their Hindu neighbors, apparently second sort people, and, secondly, what is the most important fact, they were our allies (remember infamous "I know he's SOB, but he's our SOB?).

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/3/2005

Most of what follows was first posted at POTUS a week or so ago.

There are some good points here about US posturing and rational responses to that posturing. However, North Korea's nuke program began long before this administration, and I'm not sure that this is a situation that Bush can solve, nor that the elder Bush or Clinton could have done much better.

First, an assumption that I share with both Bush's, Clinton, and a bunch of other people. North Korea having nukes is scary because it is hard to tell how rational the leadership is. That fear is what puts military solutions into the mix of rhetoric.

However, military solutions have their own problems.

Israel got away with knocking out the nuclear complex Saddam Hussein was building in Iraq because there was no fissionable material in place. Besides, the Arab nations did not like Israel anyway; so there was little downside to the action for them.

The only time we could have attacked North Korea's installations before they had nuclear material in them was either in the elder Bush's administration or in Clinton's first term. (I'm fuzzy on when the reactors went active) Even then, an attack would have seriously damaged our relations with South Korea, China, and probably Japan.

Once fissionable material was in place, splattering a facility to hell and gone would have had a disastrous worldwide impact on the US, even if we had managed to avoid polluting the surrounding area with radioactive material.

By the mid-1990s, Korea had become, as one person put it, "the land of lousy options." A newly democratic South Korea opposed any serious threats against the North. China was only willing to help in supporting positive incentives to the North to aviod production. The Clinton administration gave it try. I think that was logical.

There is little evidence that this worked for long, if at all. Bush's shrill rheotric early in his administration did nothing to help us with our regional allies, but I don't know that it hurt matters a lot.

I do agree that whatever hesitancy there might have been in the mind of North Korea's leaders in developing and making public weapons would have evaporated in watching our attack or Iraq.

mark safranski - 3/3/2005


No, the difficulty here is that you personalize philosophical and policy differences with such descriptors as " thick-skulled" and " slimy", a habit that tries the patience of those whom you engage. Direct questions to you about your own points you leave unanswered as you attempt to shift the debate - it can't really be called an argument because you are not interested in resolving any particular point - to new questions.

For the record, I have cordial exchanges with a lot of Leftists in the blogosphere and in academia from whom I would be quick to admit, that I often learn new and interesting things. My professional mentors in History were avowed Marxists and my " right-wing" views, whether or not you view them as reasonable, seemed to be no impediment to them over the course of several years of seminars and archival research. So, let's not generalize what appears to be a personal problem with me limited primarily to you.

Arnold,what you are looking for here on HNN's boards, I'm not quite sure, but a genuine intellectual exchange does not appear to be it.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/2/2005

Most of the arguments (whether they are in capital letters or not) that I post are supported by the great majority of the world, while yours are popular just among
right-wingers, and only the less reasonable ones.
Despite my "chronic battle with English language" the logical and factual jist of my arguments have not been
rebuffed by virtually anyone on this boards, and when
I did make a couple of minor factual mistakes that were pointed out by some, I admitted them and apologized.
However, the "discussions" with you boil down to me repeating my arguments and you stubbornly avoiding to
answer them, instead piling up some new considerations/arguments.
Being tired of your slimy tactics, I drop this topic, until you make an attempt to respond to not someone else's, but my arguments.

mark safranski - 3/1/2005


At he risk of being charged with " chovinism ", I have to ask you what say do the people of North Korea currently have in anything ?

Aside from your chronic battle with the English language, do you ever feel just a little twinge of conscience when you're on the internet day in and day out, safely ensconced in front of your keyboard, shilling for some of history's most appalling dictatorships ?

When Kim Jong-Il is garrotted from a lamp post in Pyongyang we'll find out from the North Korean people themselves what they thought about foreign pressure on the regime and what it was like living under it.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2005

Mr Safransky,

When did you finally get into your thick, chovinistic skull the simple idea that THEIR economic reforms IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS?
The only tiny difference between the US approach to other nations' (those that don't play into the US hand) internal matters and the approach of the overwhelming majority of the rest of today's world is that the latter
try to urge (as you rightly mentioned) the others to improve the conditions of their people, while the former
unchangeably (except when it cannot do it by force, as it happened with Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites) tries to push those economic and political reforms forcefully down their throats. And if along the way the US and its clients kill a scores of thousands,
the moral excuse is always there: well, the former masters killed even more of their own people.
Only that excuse somehow is not taken for granted by the rest of the civilised world.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2005

You know Mr. Pell, quite right you are, saying that the US
goverment (not "we") is "technically" at war, and not just with North Korea, but with Vietnam, Philippines, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestinian-state-to-be, Venezuela, Cuba, Panama, Grenada, Columbia, Nicaragua, San-Salvador, and dozens of other countries, whose goverments and/or general populace hate "we"'s guts!
And you know why, Mr. Pell? Because of such "noble" folks like you, who label "evil" everything and only that what
does not suit their distorted world vision a-la-US-US-uber-alles they see mounting their high American horse.

mark safranski - 3/1/2005

"But U.S. policy has eliminated Pyongyang’s options and thereby encouraged a self-fulfilling prophecy, just as it has provoked the current crisis."

This is quite simply,counterfactual. It would also be news to the Chinese who have been urging economic reforms on Pyongyang for approximately a decade.


Jonas A Pell - 2/28/2005

We are still technically at war with North Korea for the last 54 years, yet we are supposed to supply them with nuclear reactors and fuel oil if they agreed to drop weapons research, thanks to arch appeaser, Neville Carter. The worse that can be said of Bush is that he hastened the inevitable confrontation with the odious Communist regime. The people who are upset are the spineless accomodationists who fear any sort of confrontation because at their core, they are cowards. When evil people act badly, don't blame the folks who are confronting them, that is the weasel's way out!