James Lindsay and Ivo Dalder ask why the US is going soft on North Korea. Peter Urban (bottom) speculates it is a result of practical policy.
Does George Bush actually believe his own foreign policy pronouncements? A year ago he made North Korea a charter member of the "axis of evil" and vowed not to "permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons". The National Security Strategy he issued last September warned that the United States would strike pre-emptively to make good on that pledge. Bush told Bob Woodward that he "loathed" Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's "dear leader". On January 3, Bush added that he had "no heart for somebody who starves his folks".
All this tough talk would make you think Bush would be putting Pyongyang in his gun sights after North Korea decided last month to restart producing plutonium. But he isn't. Instead, he and his advisers are counselling patience, dismissing pre-emption and trumpeting the virtues of working with North Korea's neighbours.
"Don't be quite so breathless," Colin Powell said, dismissing an interviewer who wondered why the administration did no more than express "disappointment" at Pyongyang's decision to violate three major international agreements.
"This is not a military showdown," Bush said, "this is a diplomatic showdown."
Even more surprising than the yawning gap between the US administration's rhetoric and its non-deeds is the stunning reversal of the punditocracy's self-described hawks. Usually quick to bang the drums of war, many now argue for giving peace a chance.
Charles Krauthammer applauds the White House for playing down the North Korean threat. "For now, there is little the administration can do," he writes. William Safire asserts that it is China's responsibility, not that of the US, to keep North Korea from going nuclear. And The Wall Street Journal's Karen Elliott House laments: "There are no good options left for dealing with a nuclear North Korea."
This counsel of despair rings hollow, however, when compared with what these same pundits (and many Republican officials) urged during the last North Korean nuclear crisis eight years ago.
Then, as now, Pyongyang was close to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into plutonium. It was also working feverishly to complete construction of two larger reactors that could produce enough nuclear material to build tens of weapons a year. But unlike his successor, president Bill Clinton actively sought to halt these nuclear efforts. He succeeded. Pyongyang agreed to freeze its plutonium-production program.
Hawks denounced the 1994 Agreed Framework as appeasement. They wanted war and disparaged diplomacy. "Peace in Our Time" was how one of Krauthammer's many columns at the time was headlined. Safire suggested that Clinton "be prepared to crush a vaunted million-man army in Asia". House wrote: "America faces a clear choice between confrontation and capitulation."
What explains the hawks' pugnacity then and timidity now? They say it is because North Korea now has nuclear weapons. House writes: "We hawks, believe it or not, understand the difference between using military force to preclude a future nuclear conflict and initiating military action that might spark one." So war is not an option. North Korea with its one or possibly two nuclear weapons has deterred the United States.
Krauthammer goes even further: "But even if nukes were not a consideration, we would be deterred by North Korea's conventional military capacity," he writes, which could destroy Seoul before America could destroy the regime in Pyongyang.
But these arguments don't hold up. The North Korean nuclear threat was exactly the same eight years ago as it is today. North Korea was then believed to have extracted 12 or 13 kilograms of plutonium, enough to make one or two nuclear weapons. In late 1993, the US intelligence community concluded there was a "better than even chance" that Pyongyang had done just that a conclusion widely reported at the time.
In the mid-1990s, a new analysis of the available data actually concluded that North Korea had reprocessed less plutonium (only 8 or 10 kilograms) than originally believed. Last summer, the intelligence community determined that North Korea had begun an illicit uranium enrichment program in 2000 a fact that North Korean officials acknowledged in October.
But these programs involve a different and more complicated technology. They will not produce sufficient weapons-grade material to construct a nuclear bomb until 2005 at the earliest.
As for Krauthammer's argument that North Korea's conventional capability is too daunting, the military balance of forces has indeed changed, but in America's favour. The hawks repeatedly cite America's new might in calling for war with Iraq. Regime change there will be a cakewalk, they say, because US forces are so much more capable than they were during the Gulf War.
Yet the same increased capability holds true for the Korean peninsula as well, except there the balance has shifted even more dramatically. Since 1994, North Korea has lost perhaps as many as 2 million people 10 per cent of its population in a catastrophic famine. The country's entire gross domestic product totals less than 4 per cent of the US defence budget. A second Korean War would no doubt be costly, but the US could win any such conflict quickly and decisively.
So what is going on? Why the war cries then and a willingness to capitulate to a nuclear North Korea now? The answer seems to lie in the one thing that did change since the last Korean nuclear crisis: the party holding the White House.
In 1994, North Korea gave the hawks a convenient stick with which to beat Bill Clinton. The particulars of the military balance on the Korean peninsula and the feasibility of a war were irrelevant. The target wasn't the Democratic People's Republic of Korea; it was the Democratic Party of the United States.
The only way to get Pyongyang to end its nuclear aspirations is to offer it a choice between more carrots and bigger sticks. If North Korea agrees to US demands, the US and its regional allies should be prepared to sign a peace treaty, establish full diplomatic relations and offer significant economic assistance all tied to specific steps that North Korea must take to dismantle its nuclear program.
As an extra incentive, Washington must make clear that if Pyongyang fails to put its nuclear facilities under international control within a preset time frame of one or two months, the US will destroy its nuclear facilities and the dear leader's regime should he choose to retaliate.
The Bush administration and its hawkish supporters have found their match in North Korea. Now, when the very threat they have long warned of is about to materialise, is not the time for the US to blink. Now is the time for unity in action to confront this threat.