No, Don't Blow It Up
For 1,971 days the Bush administration ignored North Korea's missile program as unimportant and unthreatening to the security of the United States. Then it woke up. Unfortunately, the alarm clock was North Korea's preparation to test a long-range missile. By simply putting a Taepodong ICBM on the launch pad, North Korea has managed to turn truly smart people into foolish ones.
In the week or so since word spread that Pyongyang was erecting and then fueling a Taepodong, we have seen a spate of opinion pieces declaring the following: that North Korea is in violation of its own missile moratorium and the Sept. 19, 2005, Beijing Joint Statement; that the Chinese and South Koreans are at fault for coddling the enemy; and that South Korea is a runaway ally full of appeasers, and we should work around it.
But the most egregious suggestion comes from an American treasure whom I admire beyond words: William J. Perry, former defense secretary and special assistant for North Korea policy. Perry and co-author Ashton B. Carter advocate a preemptive military strike against North Korea's missile while it sits on the launch pad. While criticizing President Bush's preemption in Iraq, Perry justifies a strike against North Korea as a prudent policy before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop. He argues that because we will forewarn North Korea that South Korea had nothing to do with it, Pyongyang is unlikely to attack the South. But just to be prudent, he says we should beef up our military forces in South Korea. That way, if war does break out, we will prevail swiftly with less cost in lives.
If you were Kim Jong Il and saw a buildup of American forces on the Korean Peninsula before an announced preemptive airstrike, would you be thinking that it would be only a limited strike and not the start of an effort to bring down your regime?
Before the Iraq invasion, we were concerned that Saddam Hussein would use human shields to prevent U.S. airstrikes on critical facilities. The same holds true for North Korea. Under the Perry plan of prior notification, you can imagine that, rather than evacuating its engineers from the missile test site, Pyongyang might instead erect bleachers and bring in schoolchildren to watch the launch. Worse yet for U.S. security is the prospect that Pyongyang might bide its time and retaliate by transferring weapons-grade plutonium to al-Qaeda, along with a map of New York City.
So we should step back and take a breath, and give our chest-thumping, feel-good opinions a rest.
First, let's get the facts straight. On Aug. 31, 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong I long-range missile over Japan without making the appropriate prior notifications. The United States did not then, in response to the missile launch, initiate a high-level dialogue (which would amount to rewarding North Korea for bad behavior under the current standard). The Clinton administration was already engaged with the North Koreans, confronting them over suspicions of a secret underground nuclear facility, which, if proven true, would have been in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
The U.S. negotiating team began a concentrated effort to walk back Pyongyang's missile program, and the result was the missile moratorium of September 1999. The moratorium specified that North Korea would not launch a long-range missile of any kind while talks about its missile program were going on between Washington and Pyongyang.
North Korea subsequently extended the moratorium unilaterally in September 2002. In March 2005, Pyongyang announced that it would no longer observe the missile moratorium. Fifteen months later, we are caught like a deer in the headlights.
So what do we do now? Attack North Korea and cross our fingers in the hope it doesn't annihilate Seoul or pass weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda? Refuse to talk to the North Koreans? Take them to the U.N. Security Council and slap their wrists?
Make no mistake: A missile test is a step in the wrong direction, and the appropriate first response would be for the United States to reimpose the specific sanctions that were lifted in 2000 as a direct result of the missile moratorium.
But the missile test is not a violation of anything more than our pride, ripping a gaping hole in the false logic that talking with the North Koreans somehow rewards and empowers them. To the contrary, we should be opening avenues of dialogue with Pyongyang. The six-party process should remain the clearinghouse for action and the primary vehicle for talks with North Korea, but not the only vehicle. Direct talks have a role. Talks among subsets of the six parties are also valuable as long as the United States is a player and not simply sitting on the sidelines.
By not talking with North Korea we are failing to address missiles, human rights, illegal activities, conventional forces, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and anything else that matters to the American people. Isn't it about time we actually tried to solve the problem rather than let it fester until we blow it up?
The writer resigned in August 2003 as special U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views presented here are his own.