The Bush administration, in dealing with the current nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, has opted to take a firmer stance than the Clinton Administration in dealing with North Korea’s Stalinist leadership. While critics have argued that a hard-line approach towards the North wouldn’t necessarily yield results better than the Clinton administration’s policy of negotiation and engagement, they fail to note that it was the failed policies of the Clinton Administration on the Korean Peninsula, which have precipitated the current crisis.
Seizing the moment in 1993, the North Koreans rattled sabers, rejected weapons inspections, threatened to pull out of the IAEA, insisted on compensation, and halted talks with South Korea. Despite the North’s brinkmanship, familiar to anyone who had carefully examined North Korea’s negotiating tactics with the West since the 1950s, the Clinton Administration caved into their demands.
In exchange for food and energy aid, the North Koreans began the submarine infiltration of saboteurs into South Korea and initiated sales of advanced missiles to the Middle Eastern enemies of the United States and to Pakistan.
Our charity towards North Korea only motivated them to demand more money and more food from us. The North could not believe we would offer unconditional food aid while they continued to arm themselves. They insisted on grain for meetings and cash to halt missile sales to rogue states.
Every ruse possible was used by North Korea to deceive the international community into providing food aid while they continued to inflate their already bloated military establishment. Ludicrous displays of goose-stepping military muscle were held while they allowed us to see their starving children. They built atrocious monuments costing hundreds of millions of dollars while they pleaded for food and charity. They sneakily and deliberately staged contrived missile demonstrations designed only to intimidate neighbors and blow their own horn to their starving people.
Responding to North Korea’s petulant brand of nuclear brinkmanship, the Bush Administration has demonstrated a realistic understanding of our military constraints and the unease felt by our regional allies to which there is no quick and easy cure-all.
However, with its political and economic influence in Pyongyang, China can be leveraged as a crucial player towards managing the current crisis. One of the central statements to come out of the Bush-Jiang Crawford Summit in October 2002 was that China does not want nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. All indicators point to the disclosure of North Korea’s uranium enrichment project as having genuinely caught the Chinese by surprise, thus making this a suitable time for the United States to engage the Chinese in a dialogue on North Korea.
If we can draw any lessons from the Clinton debacle on the Korean Peninsula, it is that while energy and food aid can be an incentive to North Korea to curtail its nuclear programs, lasting peace and stability can be achieved only if the North Koreans agree to halt all of its nuclear programs. For the United States to give in to anything less would only prolong a oppressive regime that intentionally starves its own people and threatens the lives of millions in the region.
Joseph G. Lai is a graduate student in the History Department.