North Korea

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I get quite annoyed at listening to Democratic candidates babble on about North Korea. They all say Bush is mishandling North Korea, but they refuse to say what they would do differently.

For example, the other day, John Edwards said he would not do what the President was doing; instead, he would put tough pressure on North Korea to agree to disarm. Huh? How is Bush not putting tough pressure on? Specifically, what would you do differently? Well, he says, I would sit down and talk with them. You mean, like we've done several times over the past year? Again: huh?

And Monday, on Chris Matthews, Howard Dean said basically the same thing about how Bush has wasted all this time and then described how he would do the exact same things that Bush has been doing -- saying he hasn't been doing them -- with one big exception: Dean would go bilateral.

Bilateralism is a policy that has been tried for years with North Korea, and apart from attempting it over and over, the only other consistent thing about the policy is that it has failed.

In 1992, North Korea agreed bilaterally with South Korea to stop all nuclear testing and development; so why did it need a bilateral agreement in 1995 with the U.S. (where the U.S. paid $4.5b to North Korea)? And if those two agreements were working, why did North Korea launch a test missile over Japan in 1998, and why were they transporting plans and hardware to and from Pakistan in 1997 and onward?

And why did North Korea in 1999 agree to stop their nuclear weapons programs in exchange for lifting an embargo -- that existed only because of their nuclear programs -- if the agreements were working? And why did we need another agreement in late 1999?

So the one change Dean would make to the Bush policy would be to use the same old short-term stopgap measure that has failed every other time it's been tried. It's like dealing with Arafat: the U.S. has tried dealing with him over and over, and finally said "no more." That's what happened here, except instead of asking for a new leader to deal with, the U.S. required multilateral talks instead of bilateral. That is, instead of the talks being between the U.S. and North Korea, they will include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.

The whole point of forcing North Korea into multilateral talks is that they can be more effective than a bunch of bilateral agreements, which North Korea has unilaterally ignored. The bilateral talks are a proven failure, because North Korea faces no real penalty for backing out of them, and so they back out at a whim. It is when the other nations unify against North Korea that they can, collectively, put real pressure on North Korea to abide by their agreements.

It feels good for some people to say the bilateral agreements failed only because of Bush's hard-line stance and "axis of evil" speech. But Bush was not in power when North Korea was regularly violating the agreements in the 90s. And if, as North Korea says, the only reason they restarted their nuclear program was because they were interested in defense from a rogue United States government, then why take an action that their only real ally -- China -- says is unacceptable?

Sure, China hasn't said it would not defend North Korea if it has nuclear weapons and is attacked because of it, but has stated, in no uncertain terms, that Korea must be nuclear-free, and China is bound to protect North Korea if North Korea's not the one who precipitates violence. North Korea knows the U.S. would never attack North Korea first, except if North Korea were a de facto significant threat, simply because of China. So why take the one action that China says "don't do"?

The whole point here is that North Korea wants what it doesn't have: food and money. It has leverage, and it is using that leverage. The U.S. could have continued down the previous path of bilateral agreements that were relatively easy to break -- essentially, give us money now, and we will break the agreement again in a few years and come back for more handouts -- or it could change tactics and look for a more reliable solution.

So, why has it taken so long for the U.S. to get an agreement? Yes, a bilateral agreement would happen more quickly. But a multilateral agreement will last longer (in theory, anyway). However, six countries are hard to deal with. Japan was stupid for wanting to discuss kidnapped Japanese citizens in the August nuclear talks, because it was only getting in the way of the nuclear issue. It is a valid problem that needs remedy, and it is reasonable to want to resolve it when you have some leverage, such as in multilateral talks. But it risks delaying or derailing a more important issue, so it is stupid to bring it up.

The bottom line in regard to domestic politics is that to say that no progress is being made, or that bilateral talks are the answer, is just being ignorant, or believing the voters are ignorant. Maybe the Bush policy will fail. But certainly Dean and the other candidates can't know that, and as it continues to move forward -- the next round of talks should begin this month -- it looks more and more likely to succeed.

If it fails, fine, we have plenty of other options, including bilateral talks; either way is a risk. In bilateralism we risk being back at the same place in a few years, or worse, a greater risk of continued violation of the agreements behind our backs. In multilateralism we risk taking longer to get things done, and losing out on political leverage if it fails. But the potential reward for the multilateral track, considering the continued failure of the bilateral track, makes it a worthwhile risk.

Maybe Dean isn't stupid. Maybe Dean knows his chances to win the Presidency are a longshot, that he needs to capitalize on the President's mistakes; so he predicts it will fail, knowing it won't hurt him much if he is wrong, but that it will help him a lot if he is right. That seems to be the most likely rationale for his statements, but it just points more to the idea that he is not the straight-shooter he wants people to think he is.

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<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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