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Exclusive to the Trib: What to do with North Korea

North Korea’s threats and bluster are rising again, featuring a propaganda video of a nuclear attack on Washington. Kim Jung-un’s police state has imprisoned two more American citizens under false or grossly exaggerated pretexts, thereby gaining new human bargaining chips. Most ominously, the North continues testing ballistic missiles, prompting widespread speculation it might be nearing its fifth nuclear test.

We have seen similar North Korean behavior for decades: belligerent rhetoric; state terrorism by seizing innocent civilians as hostages; and steady progress toward deliverable nuclear weapons. Is there something different this time? What should America’s presidential candidates prescribe for handling a bizarre state that persists despite being one of the most isolated, heavily sanctioned and impoverished on Earth?

The foundation of U.S. policy since the Clinton administration is that negotiations can resolve the North Korean threat. This misguided faith that Pyongyang can be persuaded or threatened to enter agreements which it will honor persists despite the equally persistent evidence that this rogue regime is just as fast and loose with its word today as its predecessors. Throughout its history, it has broken every counter-proliferation agreement it has entered.

Kim Jung-il was violating Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework before the ink was dry. This inconvenient news was finally confirmed and accepted (reluctantly by some) in 2002 by the Bush administration. Unfortunately, the State Department nonetheless launched the “Six-Party Talks,” negotiating yet another deal in 2007, which, needless to say, the North promptly breached.

Back in 1951, a U.S. negotiator had said to the North, “You deny agreements you entered into not an hour ago, in fact you yourself offered.” Nothing has changed.

Barack Obama calls his approach “strategic patience,” which is effectively a synonym for doing nothing. That at least avoids the more egregious concessions of Bush and Clinton diplomats but, nonetheless, simply allows North Korea to continue progressing on nuclear weapons (three tests so far under Obama) and ballistic missiles.

Proponents of the “negotiate with proliferators” school point to last June’s Vienna deal on Iran’s nuclear program as the pattern to follow with North Korea. Unfortunately, however, just as their logic about the prospects for negotiations is backward, so too is their understanding of cause and effect.

Pyongyang need not copy Tehran’s behavior because it was actually Iran that copied the North, entering an agreement it had no intention of honoring in exchange for U.S. economic and political concessions. It is a formula that has repeatedly worked for the Kim family dictatorship and it now is working for the ayatollahs.

And no wonder. The evidence is unassailable that these rogue states have cooperated on missile testing since at least 1998 and, quite likely, on their nuclear programs as well. Both started with Soviet-era Scud missile technology and both seek missiles as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. Moreover, no one will be surprised when Iran is revealed as the funding source for the Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans, which Israel destroyed in 2007.

Given the near certainty that Obama will never stir from his lassitude, even if the North conducts another nuclear test on his watch, what should a new president do? First, he or she must reject the failed diplomatic strategy of the last two decades. Pyongyang is not going to be chit-chatted out of its efforts to gain deliverable nuclear weapons. Negotiations might provide cover for Washington while we pursue other ways to deal with the North but no one should believe it is anything other than a necessary diversion.

Second, we should confront China with the consequences of its own behavior. The Kim regime persists only through Chinese support and protection, with Beijing even now supplying nearly all of Pyongyang’s petroleum and vast amounts of humanitarian aid. Younger Chinese leaders increasingly understand that sustaining this prison state does China no good. But we need to provide a diplomatic solution permitting North-South reunification without either humiliating or threatening China. Such a result is entirely doable but will take time and effort. Our 20-year failure to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear progress is perfectly evident in East Asia. Consequently, as Tokyo, Seoul and others grow increasingly concerned with the North’s dangerous and erratic behavior, the prospects they will acquire nuclear weapons inevitably increase. Accepting or encouraging such a result is flatly wrong. More nuclear powers, even ones friendly to America, are contrary to our interests, given the likely onward proliferation effects in less benign countries.

Third, the U.S. must abrogate the Iran nuclear deal on Inauguration Day. Long-standing cooperation between Iran and North Korea demonstrates that the “Axis of Evil” is more than a literary metaphor. Failing to stop one rogue state’s proliferation inevitably affects would-be nuclear powers worldwide. These threats cannot be treated in isolation but through a coherent global strategy.

The new president will be busy indeed.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.


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