War Stories

It’s Time To Talk to Pyongyang

Does North Korea want to launch a missile or start a conversation?

Kim Jong-il

The hermit kingdom of Kim Jong-il has always sired odd political spectacles but few more startling than last week’s Washington Post op-ed piece co-authored by William J. Perry—secretary of defense in the Clinton administration—urging President George W. Bush to attack North Korea’s test site if Pyongyang continues its preparations to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Even Vice President Dick Cheney was taken aback by Perry’s proposal, dryly responding in a CNN interview: “I appreciate Bill’s advice. … I think the issue is being addressed appropriately.” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley concurred: “We think diplomacy is the right answer, and that is what we’re pursuing.”

All of which would be fine, end of story, if Bush, Cheney, and Hadley were pursuing diplomacy, but they’re not. They’re not doing anything—and haven’t done anything for the past five and a half years—either to cool down or heat up the situation.

So, what is going on? Is North Korea planning to test an ICBM? If so, is it worth fretting about, much less launching our own pre-emptive strike? What is Perry’s motive in recommending this course? And why doesn’t Cheney of all people—the last true believer in pre-emptive strategies—think much of the idea?

Let’s back up a bit. In August 1998, the North Koreans fired a Taepodong I missile over Japanese territory without issuing the customary prior notice. The whole region was outraged. But the Clinton administration was in the process of negotiating with Kim’s regime—about a ban on missile technology, as it happened—so, it was quite natural to start talking about this test. One year later, they negotiated a deal whereby North Korea would not test any more missiles for as long as the talks continued.

Clinton never concluded an accord on North Korean missiles; he spent his last months in office chasing an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty. When Bush entered the White House, one of his first tasks was to shut down the Pyongyang talks. (The official line became: We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.)

At the end of 2002, the North Koreans resumed production of plutonium (which they’d halted since signing an accord with Clinton in 1994). But they also announced that they were unilaterally extending the moratorium on missile testing.

In March 2005, they called off the moratorium. The Bush administration responded in its customary manner: It did nothing. Now, 15 months later, the North Koreans seem to be preparing a missile test, and President Bush is shocked, shocked.

“North Koreans have made agreements with us in the past, and we expect them to keep their agreements—for example agreements on test launches,” Bush said last week in Vienna.

Well, no. The agreement on test launches that the North Koreans made “with us” expired when Bush canceled the missile talks during his first week in office. What the North Koreans are doing now is simply backing out of a unilateral moratorium—and one that they proclaimed they were backing out of more than a year ago. Bush had plenty of time to do something about it, but he didn’t want to.

That aside, the prospect of a North Korean ICBM test is genuinely worrisome. Here is an unstable, secretive, monstrously dictatorial regime that has processed enough plutonium to build a half-dozen nuclear weapons. The world would become a scarier place if this regime possessed missiles that could fire these weapons at targets across the world, including the West Coast of the United States.

So, what should we do about it—destroy the missile while it’s still on the launch pad, as Bill Perry suggests? (He proposes using sea-launched cruise missiles tipped with high-explosive—i.e., non-nuclear—warheads.)

There are some hard-headed reasons for resisting the proposal, the most compelling being that U.S. intelligence agencies don’t know what this missile is. There is no evidence that the North Koreans know how to miniaturize a nuclear bomb so it fits inside a missile cone. There is, for that matter, no evidence the North Koreans have a nuclear weapon—as opposed to some vials of plutonium.

There is a rocket on a launch pad, and there are reports that North Korean engineers are installing a third stage, which would at least theoretically give it intercontinental range. But it might not actually have such range. It might fizzle on the pad if they tried to launch it. They might not try to launch it.

It would be a terrible setback, at a time already soaking in setbacks, for the United States to launch a pre-emptive attack on another country—only to discover afterward that there was nothing to pre-empt.

There are two reasons the North Koreans might not try to launch their missile. First, they might have intended the launch preparations as an elaborate diplomatic ploy, a clumsy way of pressuring the United States to come to the bargaining table for one-on-one talks. In fact, Pyongyang proposed such talks just as the launch preparations began.

Second, if they did intend to test the missile, they may be backing off now. Reports of the launch have angered everyone in the region. Japan is threatening sanctions if the test goes forth. China and Russia have expressed their disfavor as well. Perhaps most serious, Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president, called off a long-scheduled visit to Pyongyang as a result of the impending test. KDJ, as he’s known, is a leading booster of North-South relations; his cancelation must be seen by Kim Jong-il as a diplomatic blow.

In this sense, Perry might have meant his op-ed piece as a contribution to this pressure, a way to get some higher-up in Pyongyang to think, “If Bill Perry, Clinton’s man, wants to attack us, maybe we should call the test off.”

In any case, Cheney doesn’t want to go that route, at least in part because he knows it’s paved with horror. In the CNN interview, he said, pointedly, “I think, obviously, if you’re going to launch strikes at another nation, you’d better be prepared to not just fire one shot.”

The vice president seems to realize that “pinprick strikes” don’t accomplish much, especially against a single North Korean missile. The missile’s “capabilities are fairly rudimentary,” he further told CNN, adding, “Their test flights in the past haven’t been notably successful.”

The thing is, Cheney has been through this exercise before. Back in the spring of 2003, in the wake of America’s apparent victory in Iraq, the Joint Chiefs of Staff took a close look at options for attacking North Korea’s nuclear apparatus. The chiefs concluded that all the options were bad. They didn’t know where all the targets were. The North Koreans had hundreds of artillery rockets well within range of Seoul and Tokyo, many of them armed with chemical munitions; a retaliatory strike could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and Japanese.

All this argues the case for diplomacy—specifically the one-on-one talks with the United States that the North Koreans have been seeking for over five years now. For a few months last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to initiate such talks during side sessions of the “six-party talks” in Beijing (involving the United States, both Koreas, China, Russia, and Japan). In September, they signed a “joint statement,” committing Pyongyang to nuclear disarmament and Washington to economic aid. The deal was very vague: no timetable, deadlines, or specifics. Still, it could have been the basis for further talks. Cheney took it as grounds for squelching the whole business. There have been no talks—of any sort—since.

If North Korea meant its test preparations to put direct talks back on the agenda, it may have succeeded. Pressure is building on both parties—on Pyongyang to call off the tests, but also on Washington to resume the talks. There is no shame for both sides to comply—to start what could and should have been started as the decade began.