News Analysis: U.S. has few good choices in N. Korea standoff

Posted in United States , Koreas | 06-Jul-06 | Author: David Sanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Bush has frequently expressed his dislike for Kim Jong Il and North Korea's government.
The Bush administration has tried to ignore North Korea, then, reluctantly, to engage it, and then to squeeze its bankers in a manner intended to make the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, personally feel the pinch.

Yet none of these steps in the past six years has worked. So now, after a barrage of missile launchings by North Korea, President George W. Bush and his national security advisers found themselves on Wednesday facing what one close aide described as an array of "familiar bad choices."

The choices have less to do with North Korea's newest missile - which, as Bush pointed out on Wednesday, "didn't stay up very long and tumbled into the sea" - than with the bigger question of whether the president is prepared to leave office in 2009 without constraining an unpredictable dictator who boasts about having a nuclear arsenal.

"We're at the moment when the president has to decide whether he wants an unconstrained, nuclear North Korea to be part of his legacy," said Jonathan Pollack, a professor of Asian and Pacific studies at the United States Naval War College who has spent much of his career studying North Korea and its improbable strategies for survival.

"Until now, the attitude has been, 'If the North Koreans want to stew in their own juices, let them,' " Pollack said. "But it's becoming clear that Mr. Bush may leave office with the North Korean problem much worse."

Dealing with North Korea has frustrated every president since Truman. But it has proved particularly vexing for Bush because his administration has engaged in a six-year internal argument about whether to negotiate with the country or try to plot its collapse - it has sought to do both, simultaneously - and because America's partners in dealing with North Korea each have differing interests in North Korea's future.

On Wednesday, rejecting pressure from the Bush administration, China and Russia said they would not get behind an American drive to bring sanctions against North Korea, saying they favored less punitive actions.

It was the latest disappointment in a string of attempts to enlist China to help moderate the North. Still, answering questions on Wednesday, Bush expressed no interest in dropping his objections to one-on-one talks with the North, a government he once said he "detests."

Another alternative for Bush would be take a hard line that might risk an escalation of the half-century-old confrontation between the United States and North Korea. But such a tack is now complicated by the widespread assumption that even if the North does not have the ability to launch a nuclear weapon, it now probably possesses enough extra nuclear fuel that it may be tempted to sell some to a terrorist group or another state.

That is Bush's biggest concern, and late last year the National Security Council ordered a study of the likelihood that Kim, in his effort to seek attention or gain negotiating leverage, would threaten to do it. The results, according to a senior administration official who would not speak for attribution about intelligence matters, were inconclusive.

But so far the North has only dared to offer reminders, like the test firings while Americans were celebrating the Fourth of July, that it possesses weapons that could destroy Seoul or threaten Japan, including American forces based there. The launchings were only the second time that North Korea had tested an intercontinental-range missile that, depending on whose numbers one believes, could eventually hit the United States. (The last such test launching was in 1998, and as Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it Wednesday, "both failed dismally.")

To many experts, the missile tests fit into a pattern: whenever Kim has concluded that he was not getting attention to his demands, he has staged a crisis. His father, Kim Il Sung, did so in 1994, and won an agreement from the Clinton administration that later fell apart. Kim Jong Il did so in 2003, as American troops were flowing toward Iraq, when North Korea threw out international inspectors and reprocessed the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into what the Central Intelligence Agency says is enough bomb-grade material for six or more weapons.

At that time, top Pentagon officials briefed Bush on his military options, including bombing the North's nuclear facilities. "It didn't take very long," one official deeply involved in that briefing said, "because it was pretty clear there wasn't an acceptable military option - or at least, a risk anyone was willing to take."

But Bush came to office appearing to have already determined that he would not negotiate, either. He often said that he distrusted North Korea's government and detested how Kim treated the North Korea people. In the first months of his presidency, he refused to endorse South Korea's "sunshine policy" of luring North Korea out of its shell with economic incentives. Yet the isolation strategy ultimately failed: North Korea kept producing plutonium.

Bush then reversed course, reluctantly agreeing to engage with the North Koreans at a distance, through six-nation talks convened by China and joined by Japan, South Korea and Russia. An agreement in principle was reached in September, calling for disarmament for security guarantees and eventual aid, but with no timetable. Even before the ink was dry, the North Koreans were interpreting it differently than the other signatories were.

Bush has most recently bet that China would eventually tire of the North Korean antics and enforce some discipline. Bush repeated that he and Jiang Zemin, China's former leader, had agreed that a nuclear North Korea was "unacceptable." But the reality, administration officials acknowledge, is that China fears a collapsed and chaotic North Korea more than it fears a nuclear-armed North Korea.

That could change now. The Chinese warned the North Koreans not to fire the missiles; the fact that Kim dismissed that warning is bound to anger China's leaders.

But so far, Bush has not been able to harness his partners into coordinated pressure on the North. If that changes soon, at the United Nations Security Council and around the world, it could be that the president will finally have a way forward.