The Bush Administration and the Range of Policy
Options toward North Korea
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
I. Bush Administration Policies toward North Korea
For several years now the Bush administration has been sending conflicting
signals about what it is trying to achieve in its policy toward North Korea.
Is it deliberately trying to engineer a collapse of the regime in the Pyongyang
or is it simply holding out for a better deal, with more progress on rolling
back North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and greater reform of the Stalinist
state? So far there has been no clear answer to this question—President
Bush’s policy toward North Korea has shown two faces.
This paper has two parts. First, the history of Bush administration
policy is examined, then different policy approaches to the DPRK are evaluated.
The twists and turns of the Bush administration stance toward the DPRK are
explained by two conflicting demands—demands from neoconservatives in the
U.S. for regime change and calls for negotiations from countries in the region,
particularly the ROK and China. I argue that rapid regime change is
neither desirable nor feasible, and that therefore, despite the obvious difficulties,
the best approach is to patiently pursue negotiations rather than stepping
up economic and military pressure on the DPRK.
The Bush administration’s rhetoric about North Korea has varied considerably
over time, from the president’s inclusion of the DPRK in his axis of evil
to reassurances that the U.S will not invade the North. Some policymakers
and institutions have been more inclined toward negotiation, most notably
the State Department and former Secretary of State Powell. (Cha, Hiebert,
Feffer 2003) Others, most notably Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and
neoconservatives at the Pentagon, have been more willing to take chances
for regime change. (Rennie)
In recent years the official position has been that the U.S. wants to negotiate
a settlement of the nuclear weapons issue. Publicly the U.S. repeatedly
professes its desire to deal with the existing regime and pledges that it
has no intention of aggressive action against the Kim Jong Il government.
However, the official position contrasts with ferment at the fringes—hard-line
Republicans in Congress, conservative journals and think tanks, and “vulcans”
in the administration. (Kaplan, Lobe)
The term “regime change” appeared early in the Bush presidency. Republicans
hard-liners had never supported the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton
administration that had suspended the North Korean nuclear program in return
for movement toward normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations, a deal between
a government they despised and a president they distrusted. Even
before Bush took office, a memo circulated among his transition team introducing
the concept of regime change into the lexicon of U.S. strategy. The
early Bush administration effectively suspended talks mandated by the Agreed
Framework. An early summit between Presidents Bush and Kim Dae Jung
was remarkable strained, as the new administration’s distaste with Kim’s
sunshine policies became apparent, foreshadowing rising friction between
the two allies.
After 9/11 President Bush named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil”
in his State of the Union address and thus identified it as a possible target
for the new doctrine of preemption of terrorism and proliferators of weapons
of mass destruction. Visceral revulsion could be seen in Bush’s own
characterization of Kim Jong Il as “an untrustworthy madman,” a “pygmy,”
and an “evildoer.” (Cumings) Traditional conservative anti-communists
saw the continued existence of the Stalinist regime in North Korea as an
affront to rationality and modernity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet
Union and major reform in China. After 9/11 the neoconservative desire
to strike back at hostile regimes that might pass weapons of mass destruction
on to terrorists only hardened the Bush administration’s attitude.
Key Events in Bush Administration Policy toward North Korea
on regime change
Kim Dae Jung
Axis of Evil
trip to North Korea
the Agreed Framework
Opening of Six
In the fall of 2002 hopes for new negotiations were raised and then dashed
when Ambassador Kelly traveled to Pyongyang, the highest level Bush administration
official to do so. (McCormack) Kelly returned stating that North Korea
had admitted to a secret uranium enrichment program banned under the Agreed
Framework. The already rickety Agreed Framework collapsed completely and
tensions mounted dramatically.
Every nation in the Northeast Asian neighborhood was unnerved to one degree
or another by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the suspension of negotiations
between the U.S. and the DPRK, and the emergence of a second Korean nuclear
crisis. (Arms Control Today, Japan Echo) The U.S.-ROK alliance was
particularly stressed, with large-scale anti-American demonstrations sweeping
South Korea and open policy squabbles surfacing between Washington and Seoul.
In 2003 the conservative reluctance to deal with Kim Jong Il was trumped
by the second nuclear crisis and intensified demand of countries in the region
for renewed negotiations. Six party talks began, allowing the Bush
administration to respond to regional concerns while at the same time saving
face and bringing other nations into the process in an effort to bring greater
concerted pressure on the DPRK. (Kerr 2003) The Bush administration has come
to recognize a leading role for China in particular, which because of its
ideological and economic ties is the only state with any real influence on
The six party talks so far have made little concrete progress, with the U.S.
and the DPRK far apart on the sequence of threat reduction and the other
four parties as yet unable to move either of the antagonists toward agreement.
The original U.S. position was that complete, verifiable, and irreversible
dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program must come before progress
on other issues would be possible. Not surprisingly, the DPRK continues
to demand simultaneous concessions from the U.S. before it abandons its crucial
bargaining chip. (Kerr 2004)
The U.S. showed a bit more flexibility in the third round of talks in June
2004 when it put forward a two stage proposal in which South Korea, China,
Russia, and possibly Japan would give economic and energy aid immediately
upon a North Korean commitment to terminate all its nuclear programs and
allow international inspections. U.S. concessions would still be contingent
upon the closing of North Korean nuclear programs, surrender of nuclear materials,
and permanent monitoring of North Korean facilities, although bilateral talks
between North Korea and the U.S. would begin in the first stage. However,
Pyongyang gave little response to the new proposal, apparently choosing to
wait out the U.S. elections hoping for a Kerry victory.
While lobbying from nations in the neighborhood brought renewed negotiations
as a response to the second Korean nuclear crisis, neoconservatives have
continued to push for a regime change strategy. (Morris, Barone, Niksch)
In 2003 a memo attributed to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld calling for the
U.S. to enlist China to back a coup to replace Kim Jong Il leaked to the
Hard-liners also won the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003.
PSI is a proactive interdiction program designed to interrupt trade in WMD,
for example, through boarding of ships suspected of carrying WMD materials.
PSI gives the appearance of forceful action against nuclear proliferators
without great cost or risk, although it is unlikely to reassure skeptics
that WMD trade is under effective control, and if invoked frequently, PSI
could rekindle fears of U.S. preemptive strikes.
Overall, the predominance of hard-liners in the Bush inner circle seeking
greater confrontation and eventual regime change has been balanced by exhortations
from South Korea and China to avoid confrontation and pursue negotiation.
The outcome of these countervailing pressures of conservative hostility toward
the DPRK and the unwillingness of key allies to support a regime change strategy
has been a kind of “malign neglect” of North Korea. The wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq have not only consumed most of the attention of the national security
apparatus, they have left the U.S. stretched too thin to contemplate any
serious action against the deteriorating but still dangerous DPRK.
The early days of the second Bush term have brought more temporizing and
malign neglect because the contradictory policy pressures apparent in the
first term endure. (Pomper, Feffer 2005)
Conflicting Demands on U.S. Policy Toward North Korea
Neoconservative Demands to Confront the DPRK
ROK, Chinese, and other International Demands
to Negotiate with the DPRK
The long term viability of the six party talks is in question.
The DPRK has announced publicly that it has built nuclear weapons and is
uninterested in returning to the negotiating table until the Bush administration
is willing to make more concessions. Rumors of an imminent North Korean
nuclear test persist.
On the other side, Bush’s election victory and the consolidation of the position
of conservatives in the revamped Bush Cabinet has strengthened the hand of
those who advocate stepping up the pressure on North Korea. The sobering
situation in Iraq has quieted open talk about regime change. The Bush administration
still sticks to its official line of seeking negotiations. However,
those who never wanted to negotiate with the DPRK in the first place have
begun to brand the stalled six party talks a failure and push for new initiatives
to try to either bring about a collapse of the DPRK or force North Korea
to capitulate. (Sanger) Recent comments by President Bush and Secretary of
State Rice labeling Kim Jong Il a “tyrant” and the DPRK an “outpost of tyranny”
raise renewed questions about the depth of U.S. commitment to serious negotiations.
II. Possible Long-term Outcomes on the Korean Peninsula
Any regime change strategy needs to be evaluated in light of its impact on
the Korean future. There are four general potential outcomes to the
current situation on the Korean Peninsula: 1) continued impasse, with
the DPRK retaining and further developing its nuclear weapons programs, 2)
collapse of the North Korean regime, producing a new government that might
abandon or bargain away the North’s WMD, 3) armed conflict that would destroy
North Korea’s nuclear capability, or 4) a negotiated agreement for North
Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs in return for more normal relations
with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Before policy toward North Korea can be carefully analyzed, thought needs
to be given to which of these outcome is most feasible and desirable.
No one outside Kim Jong Il’s inner circle is satisfied with the status quo.
Almost everyone seeks fundamental change in both the regime in the North
and the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean
people suffer greatly under a government that can neither feed its own people
nor truly open up and reform its economic and political systems.
But even more important, the status quo is not stable. At any time
armed conflict and/or the chaotic collapse of the North is possible.
Even if the DPRK were to continue to muddle through, with the breakdown of
the Agreed Framework, the status quo now includes a growing North Korean
nuclear capability. The Bush administration concerns that North Korea
might proliferate nuclear technology as a source of hard currency are not
unfounded. Furthermore, a nuclear North Korea poses a considerable
threat to both the ROK and Japan. The longer North Korea holds nuclear
weapons, the greater the probability of more states in the region going nuclear,
sparking a mushrooming arms race.
So change is clearly desirable. However, there is broad disagreement
about how to achieve change. Some methods are so costly and risky that
few advocate them. For example, only the most militant would seek armed
conflict as a solution to the Korean problem, and few are openly in favor
of deliberately starving the North Korean people as a tactic for change.
Despite early post-9/11 “axis of evil” and regime change rhetoric, even the
most hard-line neoconservatives in the Bush administration have been sobered
by the costs of the war in Iraq. However, armed conflict could be the
unintended consequence of escalation of tensions and/or the badly managed
collapse of the DPRK.
Collapse of the regime in the North and absorption by the South, as West
Germany absorbed East Germany, is another possible long-term outcome.
While few would shed any tears for the end of the DPRK, the consequences
and desirability of rapid regime change in the North are seen very differently
in different circles. Rapid regime change is appealing to ideological
conservatives in the U.S. and the ROK, but ultimately much too dangerous
and painful. At a minimum collapse of the DPRK would result in millions
of economic refugees fleeing not only south, but also north into China and
Russia. The North’s already antiquated economic infrastructure would
be further degraded. A succession struggle between different factions
in the North could be bloody and protracted, and could well draw the South
and possibly other regional powers into a quagmire. The terrible suffering
of the North Korean people would only be intensified. And the possibility
cannot be discounted that in the face of imminent collapse, either the regime
itself, or hard-line factions, might launch a military conflict with the
U.S. and/or the ROK. The belief that the end of the DPRK would solve
the problems of the Korean Peninsula is ultimately magical thinking.
III. Three Policy Approaches to the DPRK and Their Possible Outcomes
The range of options in dealing with the stalled six party talks can be broken
into three basic approaches. The first is simply waiting until the
North Koreans come to the conclusion that it is in their interest to negotiate
seriously, to maintain the stance of malign neglect. The second option
is to step up the pressure on North Korea to either force a return to the
table or bring about a collapse of the Kim Jong Il regime. The third
is patient pursuit of negotiations, with greater emphasis on the benefits
that will follow from resumption of the six party talks, and greater willingness
to put U.S. concessions earlier in the sequence of mutual accommodations,
what might be called an incentives approach or sweetening the pot.
None of these options is a panacea. A great deal of effort has been
spent in the past decade trying to defuse North Korean nuclear programs,
with little success. Each of these approaches has been tried to one
degree or another over the years since the first nuclear crisis in the early
1990s. The DPRK has proven hard to move by either blandishments or
threats, by either carrots or sticks. Sober analysis leads to the conclusion
that the most likely outcome of any of these approaches is little change
from the status quo.
There are good reasons to be dissatisfied with the status quo and impatient
with the lack of progress in the six party talks. Since the Agreed
Framework broke down there has been a steady increase in North Korea’s nuclear
capability. If a nuclear North Korea becomes perceived as an irreversible
fait accompli there is real danger of an escalating arms race in the Asia
Pacific. It was no accident that the last major North Korean missile
test was fired over the Japanese islands, and the significance was not lost
on Tokyo. While old fashioned militarists remain weak and isolated
in Japan, recent events have left Japan feeling more and more estranged from
its Asian neighbors. If Japan were to feel threatened enough by North
Korean nuclear weapons to go nuclear itself, South Korea and even Taiwan
might not be far behind. Furthermore, the Bush administration’s warning
that the cash strapped DPRK might be tempted to sell nuclear weapons technology
to other states or even terrorists groups cannot be completely discounted.
Yet while the status quo is not desirable, it is important to realize that
the current situation is preferable to many of the plausible scenarios for
change. If no policy is highly likely to achieve success, evaluation
of changes in policy should focus on the risks they entail. The risks
of the status quo are considerable, but are they greater than the risks that
would be born by stepping up the pressure on the DPRK?
There are different degrees of pressure that could still be brought on the
DPRK. They range from simply heating up rhetoric all the way to some
military action against DPRK nuclear facilities. In between lie options
like tightening up economic sanctions, taking the issue of North Korean nuclear
weapons before the UN Security Council, intensification of Proliferation
Security Initiative operations like the interdiction of DPRK shipping, or
delaying or reducing international and South Korean food aid. A variation
of this option is leaning on China to step up its economic and ideological
pressure on the DPRK. These options are not mutually exclusive.
They could be pursued in combination or applied sequentially over time.
Three Policy Approaches to the DPRK and Their Possible Outcomes
DPRK will “wake up”
DPRK will collapse
Regional arms race
Step up the Pressure
DPRK will “wake up”
DPRK will collapse
Cycle of Escalation
Counterproductive Strengthening of DPRK
Sweeten the Pot
DPRK will negotiate
DPRK will escalate its demands
The hopes of those who advocate various versions of stepping up the pressure
are that they would either force the DPRK to “wake up” to the unacceptability
of its current behavior or hasten the end of a dangerous regime. As
argued above, too rapid a change in the North is not desirable. However,
those, mostly in the U.S. but also in the ROK, who are convinced rapid regime
change is desirable should also consider that outside pressure, particularly
unilateral U.S. action, could be counterproductive—that it could actually
strengthen the existing regime. The DPRK legitimates the sacrifices
and repression the North Korean people bear on the supposedly grave threat
they face from the aggressive Americans and Japanese. Hard-line actions
by the U.S. and its allies only reinforce the “siege mentality” on which
the Kim Jong Il government depends. (Harrison)
Given the opaque nature of the DPRK, whether outside pressure weakens or
strengthens the current government is ultimately speculation. However,
the greatest risk of a policy of stepping up the pressure is readily apparent—the
danger that it will ultimately provoke armed conflict. Few policymakers,
even few neoconservatives in the Bush administration, openly seek a military
solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. But any policy of stepping
up the pressure bears considerable risk of starting a cycle of escalation.
Tit for tat response and counter-response could generate the spark that ignites
the powder keg that is the Cold War legacy on the Korean Peninsula.
Given that recent years have shown that no policy has great probability of
success in moving the recalcitrant DPRK off its current path, are the risks
of provoking an armed conflict really worth it?
The third set of options is some kind of sweetening of the international
offer to North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. The experience
with a similar approach in the 1990s with the Agreed Framework is certainly
mixed at best. The fact that the North Koreans did sign on to the Agreed
Framework shows that it is at least possible that the DPRK is serious when
it proclaims that it would be willing to trade it nuclear weapons for security
guarantees, economic aid, and normalization of relations with the U.S. (Sigal
1998) However, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework also raises profound
questions about whether the DPRK is truly ready and willing to give up its
most prized strategic asset.
The DPRK’s behavior, particularly its apparent uranium enrichment program,
contributed to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework. However, the
U.S. was not without fault either. Conservative Republicans in Congress
delayed implementation of the deal during the Clinton years, in part by refusing
to appropriate funds. The early Bush administration’s suspension of
talks with the North, its statements about an axis of evil, its threats to
use military force to pre-empt rogue regimes, and conservative speculation
about collapse scenarios only confirmed fears in Pyongyang that the U.S.
was more intent on eliminating the North Korean regime than on negotiating
with it. From the North Korean point of view, the U.S. ultimately never
followed through on its commitments under the Agreed Framework and thus the
DPRK’s fundamental security position has not improve. (Sigal 2002) The North
still remains vulnerable to superior U.S. forces, and it has not even been
able to extract a non-aggression pact from the U.S., much less normalization
Certainly the risks entailed by continued negotiation are not as great as
the risks of stepping up the pressure on the DPRK or even of malign neglect.
Those who resist softening the negotiating stance toward the DPRK usually
cite two risks—that sweetening the pot will only encourage the DPRK to demand
greater concessions or that if more aid were to flow, it would only prop
up the Kim Jong Il regime. If as argued above, the rapid collapse the
DPRK is not desirable, then it is not a problem if aid forestalls such a
catastrophic collapse. The prime danger of sweetening the pot is that
it would only encourage North Korean intransigence. However, since
the six party talks are stalled anyway, this seems like a relatively small
risk to bear, certainly much less that the dangers of escalation of tensions
and possible conflict or even the risks inherent in the status quo.
IV. Lessons of History for the Korean Peninsula
Policymakers are influenced by images they carry of “historical lessons”
from past international conflicts. In the early Cold War the belief
that appeasement had actually encouraged Hitler to further aggression haunted
U.S. strategists, who repeatedly proclaimed that they would not be responsible
for another “Munich,” the site where concessions to the Nazis were made.
Similarly, in the later Cold War, U.S. policymakers were preoccupied with
the “Vietnam syndrome,” in which every potential U.S. intervention could
be seen as another hopeless quagmire.
Today, policy toward the DPRK is largely driven by analogies drawn from the
end of the Cold War. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, following
his predecessor Kim Dae Jung, has proposed that for the DPRK a Chinese or
Vietnamese model of gradual opening up to the external world and internally
driven reform would be most suitable.
The neoconservatives in the Bush administration have a different historical
analogy—the rapid and relatively painless (at least for the West) collapse
of the Soviet Union. A similar collapse of the DPRK seemed quite plausible
in the early 1990s. Selig Harrison argues that many in the Clinton
administration accepted the more controversial provisions of the Agreed Framework
because they believed the DPRK would be gone before they would have to be
implemented. However, a generation later the DPRK is still standing,
and however much the North Korean people are suffering, there are few outward
signs that the regime itself is in its death throes.
But perhaps an even greater flaw in the hard-liners’ Soviet analogy is their
misinterpretation of the causes for the fall of the Soviet Union. It
is a mistaken reading of Cold War history that the Soviets were brought down
only by the military superiority of the West and the steadfast will of the
United States in grimly confronting the communist menace. A more plausible
interpretation of the conclusion of the Cold War is that it was the engagement
of the Soviet Union and China, what at the time was called détente,
which made reform of the communist systems possible. It was gradually
reducing the military pressure, conducting protracted negotiations over specific
military and political details, and patiently crafting arms control regimes
and political structures to mitigate sources of tension which gave the Soviet
Union a way out of a seemingly never-ending conflict, a way where everyone
could be winners in peace rather than losers in war. Demonization of
the adversary, belief that negotiations with the demon adversary are fruitless,
and permanent military confrontation were the not way out of the global Cold
War, and they are not the way to deal with the DPRK today.
Certainly one lesson that can be drawn from contemporary history can be found
in the current Iraq War—regime change imposed from the outside can have massive
unintended consequences, that it is unlikely to be a magical solution to
long festering animosities and conflicts.
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