When President Bush named North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in early 2002, many critics saw it as a dangerous sign of counterproductive foreign policy. It was called a strategic blunder, the only fathomable effect of which would be to instigate the sensitive regime of Kim Jong Il. Last week, North Korea said it successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, and the escalation that allowed for it has been blamed in no small part on the president’s offensive epithet. It is therefore worth examining exactly how the president’s policies and rhetoric might have pushed North Korea to the brink.
Criticisms of President Bush’s attitude usually go something like this: Before he became president and began aiming hostile oratory at North Korea, the latter’s nuclear program had been consigned to the past. The Agreed Framework of 1994, in which North Korea agreed to suspend its illegal nuclear program in exchange for domestic energy assistance and partial normalization of relations, was in place. More negotiations were potentially on the horizon. When President Bush was elected, however, he evinced no desire to seek cordial relations, instead choosing to criticize the Kim regime and conflate it with the enemies of modern civilization. As a result, Kim lost hope in the possibility of attaining leverage in the future and decided to relaunch a secret nuclear program later in 2002.
On its surface, the case looks bleak for Bush. It is made even worse when one notes that by 2002, the construction of two light-water reactors in North Korea — a construction promised by the United States in the Agreed Framework — was years behind schedule. In a nutshell, then, George Bush antagonized the North and neglected the paramount agreement it had signed. U.S.-North Korean relations spiraled into years of suspicion and iciness, during which the North developed its nuclear programs as American antagonism repeatedly impeded negotiations. The president’s view of a black-and-white world had fomented danger.
But not so fast. First of all, it was North Korea who violated the spirit of the Agreed Framework, not the United States. Though the sluggishness of the reactor production was an unfortunate setback for the North, it was prompted by Kim’s own provocative actions, and it was a minor problem when one considers that the United States was largely upholding its end of the Framework bargain. Furthermore, North Korea exposed its backward way of thinking by responding in the way it did: by implementing a secret uranium-enrichment program. It’s not as if North Korea’s response was simply an innocent way of making up for the power lost as a result of the light-water reactor delay. It was merely returning to its status quo of breaking international law and seeking to profit from it.
Another strike against North Korea is that it is unknown for how long the secret uranium-enrichment program had been in place. It’s unlikely that potential U.S. non-compliance with the Agreed Framework even influenced Kim’s decision to conduct the program. Blaming the United States for destroying the Framework was merely a facade, a purely ostensible excuse meant to legitimize the uranium program when it was finally revealed. This became even clearer when, after the program was uncovered, North Korea asserted its right to self-defense through nuclear weapons, a right it had curiously renounced in writing in 1994.
Given these circumstances, can’t we still blame George W. Bush for his aggressive labeling? This line of thinking leads to a perverse standard of diplomacy. There is a paradox in assuming that North Korea would respond amicably if it received only respectful, reasoned overtures. If we label North Korea “evil” because of its intentions, and as a result it fulfills our prophecy and breaks the law, why should we try to avert this fate by speaking falsely and giving it credit where it deserves none? Kim’s needs and desires eclipse what can be provided by international agreements. Actually obeying these agreements would bring Kim economic benefit, but he would invariably cede international influence and maybe even domestic political power. Given his reluctance to do this, a more forceful impetus will be necessary — a reality many of us want to deny. Kim understands this situation, which is precisely why he has been unceasingly hostile and unreasonable, coaxing the world into holding him to a lower standard of legality. His father understood it, which is why he started a secret nuclear program in 1962 and used it in 1994 to squeeze resources out of countries that played by the rules. And George W. Bush understood it, which is why he was so hard-hitting in his diction from the beginning. We would do well to consider, in weighing how to cope with the latest phase of this nuclear crisis, that a power-hungry autocracy, by any name we choose to call it, is just as evil.
Dan Bleiberg is a sophomore in Trumbull College.