To the Editor:
Arthur Waldron thinks the U.S. has erred in seeing China as the key to the North Korean situation [“Our Game with North Korea,” February]. For one thing, he believes China does not really have the ability to bring Kim Jong Il to heel.
But what supports this notion? The Koreans may resent the idea of being China’s vassal, but this does not change the fact that their country is just that. Should China turn its back on Pyongyang, North Korea would be devastated, not least psychologically, and Kim would know that he was lost.
Mr. Waldron correctly senses, however, that China is not as afraid of a nuclear North Korea as once presumed. Moreover, it has reasons to deem the prickly situation to its advantage. But the answer, surely, is to change China’s mind, and to persuade it that a North Korea armed with long-range nuclear missiles would result in a remilitarized and nuclear Japan. Making China the solution to the North Korean imbroglio is not an error. The mistake lies in not pushing China aggressively enough.
Middle Village, New York
To the Editor:
Arthur Waldron does well to point out that, in the end, what drives the leaders of both Koreas is the goal of unification. No matter what positions our South Korean allies take, they will always aim toward uniting with the North Koreans. This must be considered a given.
The political and diplomatic quagmire that we now face vis-à-vis North Korea could have been avoided. Mr. Waldron rightly places some blame on the Clinton administration’s capitulation in the mid-90’s to North Korea’s demands for economic aid in return for promises to end its nuclear programs. It is certainly true that this kind of diplomacy by itself did not resolve the matter.
But the real source of the problem is the overall trajectory of American policy toward North Korea, which has been inconsistent at best and often indifferent and ignorant. The Clinton administration’s gradual diplomacy would have worked had the U.S. stayed the course and kept communicating with the North Koreans. This would have represented not a capitulation but an acknowledgement of the fact that a hostile regime can always be dealt with constructively.
Nor should we forget that there was no clear policy or coherent thinking about the Koreas within the Bush administration for well over a year after it came to office. Mr. Waldron mentions the surprising effect of the “axis of evil” speech, but including the North Koreans in the evil trinity of global terrorism can only be described as overreaching. The fact that there was no concerted effort by the United States even to attempt to resolve the nuclear problem in North Korea before 9/11 is as revealing as Clinton’s failures.
I am impressed with Mr. Waldron’s insightful acknowledgement of the need to deter nuclear-armed Communist governments by allowing our allies a similar capability. He understands that by weakening the forces of existing democracies in East Asia, we make the goal of changing the regime of North Korea a fool’s dream.
To the Editor:
I agree with much of Arthur Waldron’s critique of how the U.S. has handled relations with North Korea. But there are some significant problems with his recommendation that we “strengthen the deterrent, which is to say, the offensive, powers of our allies.” This, he says, means “working with our friends and allies to develop a genuinely shared offensive capability such as NATO possessed during the cold war.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Waldron does not provide details about what this would involve. NATO’s “shared offensive capability” was founded on a “dual-key system” in which American nuclear weapons were in the joint control of American and foreign officers. Does he envision a similar system involving South Korean and Japanese officers? In principle this may be possible and would provide a significant deterrent. In practice, however, such a plan would likely face considerable political opposition in both South Korea and Japan.
A second problem with Mr. Waldron’s recommendation is that even if it could be implemented and made credible, it would deter only direct attack by North Korea against South Korea and Japan. It would not deter North Korea’s efforts to share its nuclear capabilities with other countries or terrorist groups. Instead, we need to make very clear to Kim Jung Il and his coterie that assisting a hostile terrorist organization would constitute an act of war, and that his regime would, as a result, be brought to an end.
Michael F. Altfeld
Falls Church, Virginia
Arthur Waldron writes:
My article started with the bleak but realistic assumption that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons, no matter what any other country says or offers, and even if it promises to do so. I then explored the unsatisfactory options with which this possibility leaves the democratic countries. I identified the greatest danger as the acceptance of a sham agreement, like the one China is urging in the present six-party negotiations: that is to say, one that defers the real nuclear problem far into the future by creating a series of time-consuming stages involving aid from the West and assertions—short of actual disarmament—from Pyongyang.
This approach is politically appealing in an election year, and is very close to the one adopted by the Clinton administration with its “Agreed Framework,” which provided generous aid to North Korea and even a pledge to construct two “safer” reactors for its power needs in return for promises that turned out to be worthless. So far, I reported, the Bush administration has shown few signs of going down this path, in spite of Chinese urgings. Should it end up doing so, it would risk wrecking the Japanese-American alliance, which is the keystone of security in East Asia.
Implicit in my essay, however, was a larger issue. The dictatorial and Communist states of Asia, notably China and North Korea, have engaged in conventional and nuclear arms buildups that (especially in the case of China) have elicited remarkablylittle response from the West. Contrasted to those buildups is American policy toward our democratic Asian allies: namely, to limit them to “defensive” weapons. Thus, we have intervened once to stop a South Korean nuclear program and twice to stop a program in Taiwan.
This is an inadequate, indeed dangerous, response. To the challenge of growing offensive power in the hands of the dictatorships, we have offered our allies dialogue, diplomacy, and finally defense in the form of anti-missile systems. But while such systems are desirable, no missile defense is capable of stopping every single missile fired, and any such system can be overwhelmed by the launch of more missiles than it has interceptors. Hence my conclusion: only a deterrent capability in the hands of the democracies—that is, offensive systems sufficiently powerful to frighten adversaries so that they will not dare to launch attacks—can stabilize the situation and maintain the peace.
Two of my correspondents are more optimistic than I, and suggest ways by which a purely diplomatic process could lead North Korea to abandon its dangerous nuclear program. The third is even more pessimistic than I was.
For a time last summer, the Bush administration seemed to have identified China as the key to solving the North Korean problem: somehow Beijing could accomplish what we could not, by using its putatively enormous influence in Pyongyang. To me this was a pipe dream: for whatever reason, Beijing is more interested in using the six-party talks to obtain leverage over the U.S. on other issues than in actually solving the problem.
Marc Salzberger disagrees. Korea, he writes, is in fact “China’s vassal” and has little choice but to do what Beijing says. “Should China turn its back on Pyongyang,” he writes, “North Korea would be devastated, not least psychologically, and Kim would know that he was lost.” Therefore, Washington’s error lies not in the attempt to work through China but in the failure to “push China aggressively enough.”
I find this unconvincing. Were I to characterize the relationship between North Korea and China, I would be tempted to say the opposite: that China is, in a paradoxical way, North Korea’s vassal. In particular, Beijing has no desire for yet another Communist regime to collapse, let alone one with which it shares a long border. Nor would it welcome North Korea’s unification with South Korea, which would create a military power, German in scale, controlling sea lanes to Beijing and access to the Sea of Japan, not to mention claiming territory in Manchuria that is now under China’s control.
Thus, to repeat, Beijing is North Korea’s vassal, for which privilege it pays a very high price both diplomatically and materially. Beijing may not approve of North Korea’s actions, but it has no choice but to support its neighbor, since the consequences of North Korean failure would be even more dangerous. Therefore, as Beijing sees things, its interest lies not in disarming North Korea but in getting other countries to share the burdens of keeping that regime afloat.
Let us suppose that we followed Mr. Salzberger’s advice to push China “aggressively.” How exactly would we proceed? Would our ambassador seek a meeting with President Hu Jintao and pound the table, demanding that China do more? It is hard to imagine anything like this succeeding unless backed by draconian sanctions against China. What would those be? Threats to cut off market access? Speeches in the UN?
But let us further suppose that, miraculously, China agreed. What then? If it cut off oil and food supplies to North Korea, and no one stepped in to fill the gap, a full-scale crisis would result, with the Communist regime teetering on the edge of collapse and refugees fleeing into both China and South Korea. That would be a nightmare for Beijing. And if South Korea intervened to help North Korea, which in my view is likely, that would merely undercut the effectiveness of China’s cut-off and start both Koreas on the road to reunification— which Beijing likewise fears.
Could China pull off a coup in Pyongyang? Perhaps, but any figure strong enough to lead North Korea would be unreliable from Beijing’s point of view, and would certainly be unwilling to abandon the nuclear program. Could China undertake military operations against North Korea? Again perhaps, but were it to invade, the result would probably be general war; when the smoke cleared, I suspect China as well as Korea would have sustained grievous damage, the North Korean nuclear weapons would still be secure in some hidden bunker, and all Koreans, North and South, would be filled with hatred for China. In short, if you think the China option through, it reveals itself to be a mirage.
Byungwook Min is also more optimistic than I. Blaming the lack of resolution on an American policy that “has been inconsistent at best and often indifferent and ignorant,” he nevertheless insists that the Clinton administration’s approach “would have worked had the U.S. stayed the course and kept communicating with the North Koreans.”
I agree about the problems with U.S. diplomacy, but I am skeptical of the conclusion. During the Clinton period of engagement and the “Agreed Framework,” the North Koreans created a second clandestine nuclear program in order to make a show of abandoning the one that had been discovered. This suggests that they were not negotiating in good faith, but rather following the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Zi, well known in both Koreas, who states: “All war is deception.” Still, I agree with Mr. Min that we should communicate more with North Korea, and I thank him for endorsing my proposal “to deter nuclear-armed Communist governments by allowing our allies a similar capability.” To me this is an obvious proposition, but it is not popular in Washington.
Finally, we have the letter from Michael F. Altfeld, seeking to show that my proposals would not only be difficult to implement but also inadequate. Mr. Altfeld complains that I have not “provided details” of what would be involved in working with friends and allies to develop a genuinely shared offensive capability such as NATO possessed during the cold war. I invoked NATO because, for all the obvious reasons, I would like the free states of Asia to acquire a credible deterrence within the framework of an alliance. As for the “double key” system, I am agnostic: as I understand it, it applied only to American nuclear weapons in NATO; Britain and France, having their own independent deterrents, would not have needed American approval to launch. I think it would be better if our Asian allies had the same ability: they are, after all, constitutional states and far more stable and trustworthy than North Korea, or Pakistan, or even China. They should deter North Korea themselves, with the United States in the background.
Mr. Altfeld’s second concern is the possible supply of nuclear weapons to terrorists by North Korea. To this I have no good answer. My expectation is that terrorists will soon acquire such weapons if they have not done so already. It is true, moreover, that even a deterrent policy like the one I propose will not prevent North Korea, or any other nuclear state, from transferring technology—as, for example, China did to Pakistan.
This is a truly chilling prospect. In the face of it, Mr. Altfeld suggests, “we need to make it very clear to Kim Jong Il and his coterie that assisting a hostile terrorist organization would constitute an act of war, and that his regime would, as a result, be brought to an end.” Strong words; but how would we apply them? If a mushroom cloud appeared over Washington or Tel Aviv, we would not know its provenance. If, on the other hand, we should—miraculously—intercept a North Korean airliner or ship carrying nuclear weapons to some rogue state or terrorist group, would that really be sufficient grounds to launch a massive nuclear strike on North Korea, killing many of its 21 million inhabitants? Furthermore, North Korea does have allies, so any such action could lead to wider war. That is one reason why, when China was proliferating to Pakistan, successive American administrations did nothing, lest delicate relations be upset. And it is why I do not believe that a threat to destroy North Korea, even if it were discovered transferring nuclear materials to terrorists, would be politically credible.
Let me conclude with two broad observations. The first, now a matter of intense controversy, concerns the degree to which both the 9/11 attacks and our subsequent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have disclosed a possibly fatal flaw in U.S. preparedness. Our knowledge of our potential adversaries is still almost nonexistent; we rely too much on “technical means” rather than on agents on the ground, and on often unreliable material from exiles, allied intelligence services, and similar sources. The first step in addressing a whole range of issues, existing and looming, is a reform of the CIA, NSA, DIA, and other organizations that have failed at their tasks. I have never understood why President Bush did not order this, if not on his first day in office, then at least immediately after 9/11.
Second, we must learn once again that deterrence keeps the peace. Too often we have imagined that if only we would restrain ourselves and our allies (as we have done by limiting the South Korean missile program, or allowing the Taiwanese military to fall behind for years), our actions would be reciprocated. Events have proved this assumption false.
The balance of terror kept us relatively safe during the cold war. In Asia, however, none of the democracies is in a position to frighten its adversaries. The result is an unstable situation that may tempt others to see if they can perhaps launch a quick operation and win. Such a state of mind, which China seems to be developing, is extremely dangerous.
The moral of the story: democracy is good, and it has flourished in Asia beyond anyone’s expectations. But we need more than just democracies; we need militarily strong democracies. The lesson of World War II and many other wars is that not only is there nothing wrong with democracies being militarily stronger than their dictatorial adversaries, but that both peace and the future of democracy require it.