I believe in giving credit where it’s due - even when it sticks in one’s craw. Thus I find myself in the unenviable position of having to commend George W. Bush and his gaggle of noxious neo-conservatives for getting something right: how to defuse the nuclear time bomb on the Korean peninsula. I have written on Korea for On Line Opinion before [Defusing the Korean time bomb; Deadly, dangerous and unpredictable] and even a cursory scrutiny of those pieces reveals the extent of my mistakes.
For decades the so-called Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea), first under the ultra-Stalinist Kim Il-sung and now, in a bizarre communist travesty of hereditary monarchy, under his egregious offspring Kim Jong-il, has been a serious regional security problem. Since the end of the Cold War and the cessation of Soviet support, its antiquated command economy has not even been able to feed the people, and the regime became dependent on external humanitarian aid. The problem has only been exacerbated by devastating droughts (climate change?) and the diversion of huge resources to military applications.
This human tragedy did at least force the DPRK to deal with the international community to obtain food aid. But in security matters it remained dangerously erratic; developing long-range ballistic missiles - albeit that the longest-range model is atrociously inaccurate and unreliable - and, worse still, nuclear weapons. North Korea actually went so far as to test a nuclear weapon underground in 2006. On top of this, it has been assiduously exporting these technologies: there is even a suspicion (definitely not proven yet) that it may at present be trying to transfer nuclear technology to Syria.
There has been serious suspicion of the DPRK’s nuclear intentions for a long time, and for years the international community fruitlessly pursued a policy of dialogue and constructive engagement with Pyongyang. The Clinton Administration brokered a deal; in the end it came to nothing.
When Bush came to power in 2001 he immediately took a hard line with the North Koreans. Dialogue was broken off, stringent criticisms made and preconditions for further talks set. After September 11, 2001 Bush included in his “axis of evil” Saddam’s Iraq, the fundamentalist regime in Iran and the DPRK.
In response Pyongyang hardened its line. It dropped a missile testing moratorium it had carefully observed for several years; its rhetoric (if possible) became ever more negative and hostile. And finally it went to the limit and tested a nuclear weapon.
All of this horrified me, and convinced me that the neocon bull-in-a-china-shop was on the rampage again. But in this matter they saw more clearly than me. The DPRK regime is competent only at oppressing its people: locked in a hidebound ideology and economic system, it is to all appearances doomed to eventual collapse from sheer inadequacy. Without external aid, the regime has no long-term prospects.
Bush simply gave Kim nowhere to go: capitulate or face destruction were the de facto alternatives: the same, in effect, as those presented to Saddam Hussein during the long build-up to the US conquest of Iraq. But in the DPRK’s case, war would probably have been needless: one could merely wait for the regime to fall for lack of resources. The only risk in such a policy was that Pyongyang would actually resort to force or attempt to gain points by nuclear blackmail - Japan is easily within reach of DPRK medium range missiles. But such actions, whatever the short-term effects, would clearly legitimise almost any response the US chose to make and it appears that this prospect deterred Pyongyang.
So all Bush had to do was keep the pressure on - and this he did. China and Russia, Pyongyang’s traditional supporters, said little publicly, but it is unlikely that either would have welcomed the destabilising effects of either a nuclear-armed DPRK or of the possible US countermeasures. Therefore they too had incentives to "lean" on Pyongyang.
Thus beset by domestic circumstances and foreign states, Kim Jong-il finally came to understand that if he and his privileged elite wished to ride the gravy train a little longer, he simply had no alternative but to reach some form of accommodation. Better, he might say, to be master of a de-nuclearised DPRK than not to be master at all.
In this at least, Kim proves himself smarter than Saddam, whose mad policy brought his regime down, reduced his country to ruins, placing it in the hands of his greatest enemy and put a hangman’s noose around his own neck. I have little doubt that Kim Jong-il, too, would have good reason to fear a noose were he ever brought to book for his misdeeds.
This sustained pressure has produced an astonishing transformation in the Korean scene over the past six months or so. Laborious multilateral talks involving both Koreas, China, Japan, the US and Russia produced a workable blueprint. That this happened at all reveals the extent of Pyongyang’s policy shift, because the North Koreans are past masters at delay, obfuscation and obstruction in diplomatic meetings and could easily have brought the negotiations to a halt.