Global Policy Forum

No Policy Is Not Good Policy


By Fareed Zakaria

May 23, 2005

Does the United States government really care if North Korea becomes a nuclear power? Oh, it tells us all the terrible consequences that could flow from such a development: a nuclear Japan and South Korea; an arms race in East Asia; loose nukes easily available to Al Qaeda or any other high bidder. But is it really trying to stop this from happening? It doesn't look like that to many observers in East Asia, where I've been for the past week.

The problem is not that the United States has a flawed policy on this issue, but that it has no policy on it at all. It has, instead, two impulses: one to get North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons, the second to help undermine and topple Kim Jong Il's regime. But unless these two tracks are carefully coordinated and calibrated, they work against each other. If President Bush keeps announcing and implying that he is praying and working for Kim Jong Il's overthrow, that will tend to make Kim want to keep his nuclear insurance policy. As a result, U.S. policy has muddled along incoherently for four and a half years now, achieving no progress. If the U.S. wants to succeed, it will have to decide what its primary goal on North Korea is: policy change or regime change.

Washington's current position is that it's all China's fault that North Korea is being stubborn-that Beijing could pressure the Pyongyang regime easily if it wanted to. Beijing has countered that the problem is all in Washington: if the U.S. were willing to talk to North Korea, things would look better. In fact, Washington and Beijing are talking past each other. The basic problem is that they have one issue on which they agree and one on which they disagree. The key now is to embrace the common position.

Both Beijing and Washington do not want a nuclear North Korea. China has taken some time to come around to this position. There are still those in its government who think in Third World revolutionary ways: more bombs for poor nations means the rich ones will be less powerful. But even these officials have come to recognize that a nuclear North Korea would create tensions in East Asia that would sour the peace and stability they so prize. Chinese officials have publicly announced they have threatened the North Koreans with consequences if Pyongyang tests a nuclear bomb. Today there is broad agreement between Beijing and Washington on this.

But there is no agreement on the issue of regime change. From Beijing's point of view, the collapse of North Korea would be a nightmare. It would mean refugees, a failed state on its border, demands for aid and that perennial Chinese fear, instability. It would also mean that after Korean unification, American troops would be on China's border. So Beijing is not going to assist in any policy that threatens the North Korean regime. That's why it generally refuses to use its greatest source of leverage: shutting off the vast quantities of food and fuel it sends to Pyongyang. (It may have done so once or twice very briefly.) "Were the United States to get more actively involved in undermining North Korea," one seasoned observer in Singapore told me, "I would bet that China would actively move to shore up the North Koreans."

The international stalemate actually reflects a stalemate in Washington. Bush administration hard-liners want to push for regime change, while the pragmatists want to end the North's nuclear program. Neither side has won the unending policy struggle within the administration, and as a result neither side's policy is really being implemented. Thus one month the administration says that it can imagine giving Kim Jong Il "security assurances" and that it is not trying to depose him, and another month it's signaling that the regime is doomed.

This is unfortunate because now is a good moment to try to forge a common Sino-U.S. position. The Chinese are currently well disposed to help the U.S. on North Korea because Bush helped them on their great, overriding foreign-policy obsession-Taiwan. (They will never admit to linkage, but the two are obviously linked in Beijing's mind.) In December 2003, when President Bush warned Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian not to declare independence, he deflated the island's independence movement and helped Taiwanese politicians arguing for a softer line. Many Chinese observers believe that his statement changed the political climate in Taiwan. (So much so that last month Taiwan's two leading opposition-party leaders went to the mainland and spoke of reconciliation.)

China is wrong to support a truly ugly dictatorship, and President Bush is absolutely correct when he speaks of the immorality of the Pyongyang regime. But he should have faith in that judgment. North Korea's regime is destined to fall. An American diplomat talking to Pyongyang about eliminating nuclear weapons won't change that. But meanwhile, constructive diplomacy might save the rest of the world some hair-raising years of danger.

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