Globalist: No U.S. 'logic of force' exists on North Korea

Posted in United States | 23-Mar-05 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

South Korean soldiers near the demilitarized zone in Paju, north of Seoul.
DORASAN, South Korea Here in the demilitarized zone near the North Korean border, a place frozen in time, a last cold-war relic, a point where two worlds touch but do not meet, references to Korean unification abound.

At the Dora Observation Point, where the barren hills of the North may be viewed through telescopes, a sign says, "End of Division, Start of Unification." Another hilltop vantage point invites the curious to "unification observation." A traffic-free highway to a new industrial center just inside North Korea is supposed to be the road of unification.

But talk is cheap. A North Korean soldier, seen through a telescope lolling idly against the wall of his lookout post, sums up the reality of the situation: Nothing moves here. Six decades after the United States and the Soviet Union carved up the Korean Peninsula, five decades after a war that took a huge toll, 16 years after the end of the cold war, North Korea remains ensconced in its Stalinist time warp. Go figure.

By any estimate, Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader whom President George W. Bush has referred to as "the pygmy," has come out ahead in the elaborate poker game played with American administrations over the past decade. He dabbled in diplomacy with Bill Clinton, only to renege on a 1994 undertaking to freeze his nuclear program, and then toyed with an Iraq-distracted Bush by making a handful of nuclear bombs from plutonium and pursuing a uranium-enrichment program.

American policy toward North Korea has been a failure. It is time to look that fact in the face. The country is now as big threat to world peace as any, perhaps less because it is likely to detonate a bomb than because it has a proven record of trading just about anything with just about anybody to raise cash.

As one senior United States official commented, "It's not clear they'd have too many scruples about selling nuclear material."

That's an understatement. Sooner or later, America's mortal enemies are going to go shopping in sunny Pyongyang. Kim is erratic but he is not stupid; he knows that trafficking or testing nuclear devices might just take him across the red line into a danger zone. As a result, he may show restraint. But the problem he poses will not go away.

So what now? Let's think this through. If war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, one thing is certain: at the end of it, there will be no more North Korea. The place ends up resembling an ashtray. Kim has a big incentive to avoid that scenario.

But the United States has, too. You don't have to be convinced that North Korea's army of 1.2 million will actually fight to see that Pyongyang is not Baghdad. Geography is also history. Pyongyang lies close to a country, South Korea, whose 48 million inhabitants, in their overwhelming majority, reject war. Seoul is no more than 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles, from the border. Even if Kim went down with a whimper, he could take a lot of lives.

"We want to change North Korea at the minimum price," said Geun Lee, a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. "We do not want a flood of refugees making things unstable. Millions have already died on this peninsula. This is the only time we have had the lives of normal people, so it is understandable that we are very realistic about things."

Such realism - some might prefer a less charitable term - makes war almost unthinkable. That leaves diplomacy aimed at persuading Kim to dismantle his nuclear devices and program in exchange for economic help, some sort of security guarantee, and perhaps diplomatic recognition from the United States.

The basic problem with this approach was summed up by Stephen Bradner, a political adviser to the U.S. military here: "Giving up his nukes condemns Kim to peaceful competition with South Korea, which he loses. It is hopelessly delusional to think this regime can be changed."

I suspect Bradner is right, but let's imagine for a moment that the North Korean regime can be persuaded to abandon a nuclear program it has cultivated for decades as its best assurance of survival. One thing is certain: the persuasion would have to be rigorous.

But rigor is precisely what the six-party talks with North Korea, stalled since last June, lack. There are too many agendas. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, spent much of her recent Asian tour trying to persuade China, the host to the talks, to do more to bring North Korea back to the table.

China does have leverage: It provides food and fuel to the regime. But it is not prepared to cut off Pyongyang, any more than it is ready to allow refugees from Kim's gulags passage through China. It wants a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, but not to the point of putting a fellow one-party state at risk.

Rice's blunt calls for more democracy in China seem likely to incline Beijing to do less rather than more. In China's view, and South Korea's, it is the United States that should be more flexible and assure Kim he need not feel insecure.

And so it goes. Some people call the negotiations the "two-plus-four" talks, a reference to the fact that Japan and the United States are isolated in their readiness to try to get tough through a United Nations resolution.

George Kennan, the great American diplomat who died this month, once described Soviet power as "impervious to the logic of reason" but "highly sensitive to the logic of force." Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, was installed by the Soviet Union after World War II; nothing fundamental has changed.

Because the United States has not yet assembled a "logic of force" - which is not the same as force itself - it is allowing a despot to bypass the tide of history and call the shots on the world's strangest and most dangerous frontier.