War Stories

Plutonium Poker

Is Bush’s new North Korean policy shrewd or just plain stupid?

The Bush administration is becoming either outrageously dimwitted or audaciously clever in its policy toward North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. According to today’s New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the White House has decided to shift gears on the subject. No longer will it try to deter Pyongyang’s dictator, Kim Jong-il, from reprocessing plutonium or building A-bombs. Rather, it will focus on preventing him from exporting the stuff to other rogue nations or terrorists.

The case against this policy is straightforward. First, North Korea is about as rogue as nations get. Had there been evidence that, say, Saddam Hussein was plotting to sell North Korea plutonium, it would have made a persuasive case for going to war with Iraq. Why, then, is Bush so insouciant about North Korea’s seeking to manufacture bomb-grade material on its own?

Second, if Bush declares that it’s OK for a member of the “axis of evil” to possess a few nukes (as long as it doesn’t share them with others), then surely other, less evil regimes will be tempted—or feel permitted—to go nuclear.

Third, North Korea’s mere possession of a nuclear arsenal will make Japan think about building its own nuclear deterrent, which could compel China to increase its stockpile, which could trigger a response from India, which could force Pakistan to follow suit, and on the chain reaction goes.

Fourth, North Korea has a long, porous border with China, as well as four active seaports and a few airports. Difficult as it would be to negotiate a nuclear-disarmament treaty with Pyongyang, it will be much harder to detect and block nuclear trade.

But there may be something to the alternative theory—that Bush is trying to pull off a brilliant negotiating coup. Let’s say that Bush has accepted the argument—made by several State Department officials, intelligence analysts, and regional specialists—that North Korea’s nuclear threats over the past six months have been part of a wild-eyed diplomatic strategy. According to this view, Kim Jong-il’s steps toward going nuclear—kicking international inspectors out of his nuclear reactor, unsealing the spent fuel rods, transporting them to a reprocessing plant, abrogating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—are a bargaining chip. At talks last month in Beijing, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that Kim would get rid of his nuclear program if the United States resumed economic aid, normalized political relations, and signed a nonaggression treaty. (In this sense, Kim’s ploys and gambits with Bush, starting last October, amount to a replay of what his father, Kim Il-Sung, did to get a similar deal with President Clinton in 1994.)

Let us further say that the White House figures Kim Jong-il wants what nuclear weapons can buy—the aid, the nonaggression treaty, and so forth—more than he wants nuclear weapons themselves. One lesson that comes through in Scott Snyder’s excellent book on North Korea’s negotiating style is that the Kims never take “Yes” for an answer: As soon as you accept one of their conditions, they demand another, then another; the meetings are endless, exhausting, exasperating; it took 50 sessions for diplomats to hammer out the ‘94 accord. Maybe Bush has decided to play Pyongyang’s game: If the other side offers a deal, reject it out of hand and make him give up more; never surrender the initiative or the upper hand.

The Times quotes a U.S. official who sums up Bush’s thinking as follows: The North Koreans, Bush told him, “are looking to get us excited, to make us issue declarations.” Bush’s response to this pressure, the official said, is, “You’re hungry, and you can’t eat plutonium.”

The North Koreans have been able to bargain with their nuclear program over the past decade for two reasons. First, it’s the only asset that their miserably impoverished country possesses. Second, they know that nuclear weapons, especially nukes in the hands of a kook, are what the United States fears most. (For this reason, Kim Jong-il has made no effort to play down his eccentricities.)

Now, though, Bush is telling Kim: You want to build nukes? Fine. As long as you don’t sell them, we don’t care, we’re not scared. It’s as if a gunman takes a hostage and the cop responds by shooting the hostage; the gunman is suddenly vulnerable. Kim’s the gunman, his nuclear program is the hostage, Bush is the cop.

If Bush’s move is a tactic, a counter to North Korea’s endless succession of ploys, then it might work. But if it’s a firm position—if Bush really doesn’t care about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, or doesn’t take the nukes seriously, or thinks they can be contained down the road—then it is, at the very least, shortsighted. Whatever it is, the White House is taking a big gamble in a very high-stakes game. How many hostages will Kim take, and Bush shoot, before one of them caves?