Propping Up Pyongyang North Korea's dictator can't be bribed. He's too evil. BY CLAUDIA ROSETT Thursday, June 13, 2002 12:01 a.m. EDT Rosett Spring 2002 Symposium Paper

ICAS Spring Symposium

No. 2002-0508-CxR

Propping Up Pyongyang

Claudia Rosett

Spring 2002 ICAS Symposium

May 8, 2002 12:30 - 5:45 PM
U.S. Senate Hart Office Building Room 216
Capitol Hill, Washington D. C. 20510

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992

Biographic Sketch & Links: Claudia Rosett

Propping Up Pyongyang 1

Claudia Rosett 2

What with thousands of Islamic militants and their fellow travelers still running around out there looking for ways and means to destroy us, we're all supposed to be having a big rethink, especially in Washington, about the kind of entrenched institutional folly that could leave us wide open to more and even worse terrorist attacks.

But bad habits die hard, and here I'm not talking about the FBI, or the CIA, or even the INS, but about our absolutely crackpot approach to one of the most menacing regimes on the planet: North Korea. Whatever the complexities of dealing with Iran and Iraq and hunting down al Qaeda, the need to radically update our policy on Pyongyang is a no-brainer. Designed in 1994 by the delirious duo of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, our current approach melds the statecraft of Mr. Carter with the integrity of Mr. Clinton to achieve a brand of diplomacy so dumb the evil axis ought to pay us for it.

Instead, we're paying them. Carrying on within the surreal confines of the 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework, which Mr. Carter conceived, Mr. Clinton brought forth, and President Bush has not yet scrapped, we're still supplying food and fuel to North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il. And he's been busy supplying arms to our enemies, including missiles to Iran, Syria and Libya.

At the center of this arrangement is the plan for a consortium led by the U.S. to replace North Korea's old nuclear program with two light-water reactors--subject to North Korea allowing international inspections of its nuclear facilities. North Korea--big surprise--has refused to allow inspectors in. According to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang may already have the material to make some nuclear bombs, along with its chemical- and biological-weapons capability. And though construction of the new reactors has been delayed, concrete is due to be poured for their foundations later this summer. These reactors, if built, could produce plutonium for more nuclear bombs--and we'd just have to hope that Mr. Kim wouldn't do that, because he promised not to.

Like most policies of appeasement--or blackmail--this deal may already have done plenty of damage. When the talks that produced the Agreed Framework began, in 1994, North Korea was still ruled by Stalin's handpicked tyrant, Kim Il Sung, the current dictator's father. He died halfway through the negotiations. With his death came a brief moment of hope that after almost half a century of ruinous communist repression, the North Korean regime might finally crumble. That would have liberated more than 20 million North Koreans to join their South Korean cousins as members of the civilized world. Instead of letting it happen, Mr. Clinton stepped in with the Agreed Framework promise of reactors and implicit boost of prestige--helping to shore up Kim Jong Il's succession and starting a flow of U.S. subsidies that have helped keep him in power to this day.

Why anyone but our worst enemies would consider this a good arrangement is by beyond any reasonable understanding. Along with trafficking in weapons that could ultimately threaten the U.S., Mr. Kim in his efforts to keep power has clung to central planning so ruthless that since the 1990s it has produced a full-blown holocaust. Between one million and two million people have died of government-induced famine. The numbers are hard to nail down for the ugly reason that North Korea remains the most closed polity on earth. Critics of the regime are sent to prison camps that resemble the worst of the old Soviet gulag, where, defectors say, torture is routine and early death nearly assured. And while a small ruling elite live well, ordinary North Koreans have lives so desperate that hundreds of thousands in recent years have risked prison or execution in attempts to find refuge in what they see as a land of hope--communist China.

Sheer kindness might argue that we should send food and fuel because millions of North Koreans depend on it for survival. But that's not how it really works. On May 2, in testimony before a congressional subcommittee, John Powell, regional director for the World Food Program--which administers our food aid to North Korea--explained: "The army takes what it wants from the national harvest, up front and in full." It is then left to U.S. aid to fill the gap. But Mr. Powell--while insisting that the program works--went on to say that there is no way to monitor how, precisely, this help is doled out, or to whom. His staff, he said, is not allowed to make random spot checks, nor to travel unescorted, and is "not permitted to bring Korean speakers into North Korea." Nor does the U.S. have any way to monitor the use of the 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil we continue to bestow on North Korea every year--though here again there is every reason to believe that first pick goes to the military complex that is North Korea's main business.

Congressmen have periodically offered compelling arguments for scrapping this entire absurd plan. Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.) summed it up neatly in February: "North Korea is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the Asia-Pacific region. Through the United Nations' World Food Program, U.S. taxpayers pay for two-thirds of all donations to Kim Jong Il's government. We supply three-quarters of the donated oil to supply heat and electricity in North Korea."

With a certain amount of polite understatement, Mr. Cox added: "Supplementing this largesse with plutonium is not only unnecessary but counterproductive."

The moment of truth, which has yet to dawn on this miserable scene, or be evidenced in U.S. policy, is that none of the misery and menace emanating from Pyongyang is going to be solved under the rule of Kim Jong Il. Paying blackmail in the hope of co-opting him not only won't work; it also sends a damaging message to other nasty regimes--suggesting Americans are easy marks.

There are a few genuinely better ways to tackle the North Korean problem. America could ditch the Clinton-Carter Agreed Framework, which North Korea itself is not honoring, and get to work shaping a post-Clinton policy that would prove to be safer for us all. To this end, it would help to shine a much stronger light on what we do know of the horrors taking place in North Korea.

To this end, we could go a lot farther than simply urging China to offer North Korean refugees asylum instead of sending them back to death or imprisonment. We could welcome North Korean refugees in large numbers ourselves, and urge our new Russian allies to do the same. For years, North Koreans on the run have been the untouchables of the refugee world, lest a warm welcome lead to a true exodus, threatening the current carefully preserved "balance" of the Pyongyang regime. The sunshine policy of South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung, aimed at engaging Pyongyang while downplaying its depredations, has gone pretty much nowhere.

The offer of a genuine haven for North Koreans could be the beginning of a set of options far better than paying blackmail to one of the world's worst tyrants while he sells arms to our enemies, and we support his arsenal--and wonder what's next going to hit us.

1 This article is based upon Claudia Rosett's presentation to the ICAS Spring 2002 Symposium. It was published in the Opinion Journal from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Thursday, June 13, 2002.

2 Ms. Rosett is a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. Her column appears Thursdays on and in The Wall Street Journal Europe as "Letter From America."

ICAS Fellow
ICAS Speakers
& Discussants
Spring 2002