War Stories

Regime Change in North Korea?

No, Kim’s not going anywhere. But there is hope for resolving the crisis.

Very interesting things are brewing in North Korea right now, and President Bush would be well-advised to get diplomatically involved, in an intensely serious way, before the good things turn cold and the bad things boil over.

The bad things are bordering on the catastrophic. For several months now, North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-il, has stood poised to reprocess thousands of enriched-uranium fuel rods, which would produce enough plutonium to build a dozen or so nuclear weapons per year. More recently, according to a detailed article in Tuesday’s New York Times, U.S. intelligence has spotted a new testing site that, in the next six months or so, might let Kim miniaturize these weapons and fit them on the tips of his missiles—thus enabling him to launch an atomic attack on all of South Korea, Japan, and beyond.

The good things, on the other hand, offer the best hope of resolving this whole North Korean nuclear crisis since it erupted late last year. Chief among these developments was a little-reported trip to Pyongyang one month ago by a six-man, bipartisan congressional panel led by Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

During that trip, North Korean Foreign Minister Nam Sun told Weldon, “If the U.S. would sign a nonaggression pact, we would give up nuclear programs and weapons.” In response, Weldon floated a 10-point plan to accomplish just such a trade. Nam Sun said the outline was “exactly what we’re looking for.” Weldon emphasized that the plan is strictly his own, not the Bush administration’s. Whether or not this disclaimer is true, an official of a totalitarian regime like North Korea’s would almost certainly find it inconceivable that a congressman could make such a gesture independently. He and Kim no doubt view the plan as hatched from on high—and, whether their enthusiasm for it is feigned or genuine, Bush should follow up accordingly and negotiate a deal.

The fact is, Bush has no choice but to seek a diplomatic solution. He can view his situation as an opportunity or a trap, buteither way, it’s inescapable.

As he has certainly been told by his advisers, there is no good military solution to this problem. It would be nice to do to North Korea what Israel did to Iraq in 1983—fly in some bombers at low altitude and blow up the nuclear reactor. But North Korea has several thousand artillery guns within 50 miles of South Korea’s capital; many of these guns are positioned in the sides of mountains, where they would be very difficult to strike pre-emptively; many of them are also tipped with chemical munitions. Kim may also have a couple of nuclear weapons already, dating from the last nuclear crisis in the mid-’90s. Would he retaliate by firing these artillery shells or somehow launching his nukes, even though he would risk a devastating return blow by U.S. forces? Nobody knows. He’s famously flaky, and—perhaps in part to deter a pre-emptive strike—takes every opportunity to advertise the fact. Bush has said he has not ruled out any option to prevent Pyongyang from going nuclear. But the military option is just too risky. (If a silver bullet strategy had been devised, it is a fair bet we would have carried it out by now.)

Nor are economic sanctions or blockades likely to work. North Korea, by the choice of its “dear leader,” is more isolated than any other country on Earth. By most measures, its economy has already collapsed; and yet the regime survives.

The Bush administration has long been divided on how to deal with Kim’s nuclear ambitions. Some officials at the State Department and within the intelligence community favor diplomacy. But the dominant officials these days on security matters—namely, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his E-Ring crew at the Pentagon—abhor that approach. As Rumsfeld revealed last April in a secret memo (that leaked to the New York Times), he is not interested in any deals to make Kim’s regime more secure or less impoverished; he wants to change the regime—if not by force, then by economic pressure. The whole neocon network that has provided the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s intellectual support has long pushed—as their favorite outside agitator William Kristol once put it—”to change the North Korean regime … not simply to contain it or coexist with it.”

This is where Bush might start taking some lessons from the current morass in post-war Iraq. Regime-toppling, it turns out, does not automatically lead to regime change. And if we’re having trouble with regime change in Iraq—where at least opposition movements existed (if less firmly than Bush officials had been led to believe)—then how are we supposed to manage it in an utterly isolated, totalitarian country like North Korea, about which even the experts know extremely little? Maurice Strong, the United Nations’ envoy to the Korean peninsula, made this point in an almost completely unnoticed speech last month at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Speaking of the administration’s desire to make Kim’s regime collapse, Strong asked, “What does it collapse to? What is the alternative? … If you want regime change, change to what?”

Strong urged a negotiated solution and especially praised Weldon’s 10-point plan.

The plan is divided in two parts—five steps to take right now, five to take in a year or so. First, it proposes, the United States should sign a one-year nonaggression pact with North Korea, which should in turn renounce “nuclear weapons and research programs,” present a full inventory of all facilities, and allow unhampered inspections. Pyongyang should then re-ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China will form a consortium to provide $3 billion to $5 billion a year in aid and investment. The United States will also give North Korea diplomatic recognition and set up a mission in its capital.

After a year—and pending the satisfactory completion of inspections—Washington and Pyongyang will sign a permanent nonaggression pact. North Korea will also join the missile technology control regime. It will be given observer status at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, develop a program of humanitarian rights, and return all kidnapped Japanese citizens. The consortium of five countries will take steps to remove all nuclear capabilities from North Korea over a two-year period. Finally, interparliamentary relations will be set up to recommend programs for agriculture, security, and economic growth.

This plan is hardly a slam-dunk. The first part assumes that Kim’s minions are sincere in claiming strictly deterrent motives for their nuclear program. The second part requires Kim to open up his society to an unprecedented degree and in ways that could loosen the grip, and in the long run threaten the survival, of his regime.

Still, it is worth a try. The alternative is to sit back and watch one of the world’s most terrible leaders amass a nuclear arsenal and, quite possibly, sell off chunks of it to whatever rogue or terrorist comes calling with cash.