he first presidential debate highlighted the enormous divergence between Sen. John Kerry’s and President George Bush’s positions on North Korea. Although the dissimilarity might seem a matter of semantics, with Bush favoring “multilateral” talks and Kerry advocating “bilateral and multilateral” talks, the distinction, in practice, is akin to that between the northern and southern sides of the 38th parallel. Whereas Kerry is trapped in an idealistic bubble and seeks to continue the failed policies of the Clinton administration, Bush truly grasps the harsh reality of the North Korean crisis and comprehends that the only solution to the issue rests with China.
Kerry naively asserted that, if elected president, he would “immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea,” something the North Koreans have long sought, and which many countries in the six-party talks, including China, strongly desire. Through bilateral talks, the North Koreans want a quid pro quo arrangement similar to the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework of 1994,” in which Pyongyang promised to freeze its nuclear program and allow IAEA inspectors to monitor its Yongbon nuclear facility, with the United States pledging generous food and energy aid in return. This put the issue to rest until 2002, when the United States publicly accused North Korea of continuing its nuclear program in breach of the agreement.
Bilateral talks didn’t work the first time; why would they work now? Moreover, as Bush pointed out in the first debate, bilateral talks “will cause the six-party talks to evaporate.” Although Kerry asserted that he would continue multilateral talks alongside bilateral talks, the two are incompatible. Adopting bilateral talks would only encourage South Korea, Japan and especially China to drop the burden of negotiating a solution on the United States.
By contrast, Bush appreciates that a tit-for-tat solution is not viable in this context. Indeed, the North Korean crisis is an arena in which Bush’s firm, determined approach to foreign policy shines. In his Reaganesque manner of delineating between good and evil in the international sphere, Bush understands that the untrustworthy Kim Jong Il regime makes a poor bargaining partner.
For example, international food aid sent to the famine-struck country has frequently been redirected to feed Kim’s troops and security forces, the regime’s organs of oppression. Likewise, North Korea is a major player in the international black market of drugs and weapons, and relies on these unscrupulous activities as a major source of income. Not only is the Korean regime, as the president labeled it, “evil,” but it is also an unreliable state actor that frequently disregards international laws and standards. In no way can it be depended upon to abide seriously with any agreement for terminating its nuclear program.
What is the solution to this crisis? Sen. Kerry’s Web site proclaims that “As president, John Kerry will have no illusions about Kim Jong Il. Any agreement must have rigorous verification and lead to complete and irreversible elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.” The “rigorous verification” Kerry refers to would likely be reinstalling the same IAEA inspectors under whose watchful eyes North Korea secretly continued its nuclear program.
Again, Kerry’s solution neglects the reality of the situation. North Korea is a totalitarian regime completely isolated from the outside world. In no way could an inspection system, no matter how rigorous, be relied upon to ensure nuclear disarmament. North Korea will only disarm if it wants to disarm. And it will want to disarm not if the United States engages in bilateral talks, but if the very stability of the regime is threatened by its possession of nuclear weapons. Since forceful regime change on behalf of the United States is out of the question given the North’s military strength, the only remaining option is China.
The People’s Republic of China is the only country that has significant leverage on North Korea. Not only does North Korea owe a historical debt to China for defending it during the Korean War, but it depends on China for its continued survival. China is the North’s lifeline for fuel, food, financial aid and other essentials. As the president noted in the first debate, “China’s got a lot of influence over North Korea; some ways more than we do.”
The president clearly realizes China’s unparalleled power over North Korea and rightly seeks to harness it through multilateral talks. Only when China threatens to withdraw its support for North Korea will North Korea completely disarm. Thus, the difference between Bush’s approach to North Korea and Kerry’s approach is the difference between a feasible plan that emphasizes China’s strategic importance, or, in an ironic twist, “more of the same.”
Derrick Sutter is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College.