President Bush hasn't been talking much about the "axis of evil" lately. Instead, while touring Asia this week, he said he would be willing to offer North Korea a multilateral security guarantee in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program -- precisely the sort of deal he once denounced as "nuclear blackmail."
What's going on? There are competing factions within the administration on North Korea policy, and the president seems to veer between seeking accommodation and regime change. Advocates of the former policy point out that a war would be costly under any circumstances and practically impossible now, when half our Army is tied down in Iraq. Advocates of the latter policy argue we can't trust any deal struck with a regime that already violated a 1994 agreement.
Both sides are right, but the choice doesn't have to be between war and appeasement. There's a third way: seeking peaceful regime change.
One of Bush's heroes, Ronald Reagan, showed how this could be done. As Peter Schweizer details in his 2002 book, Reagan's War, the Gipper set out to consign the Soviet Union to the "ash heap of history." He figured that the communist regime was teetering economically and more U.S. pressure could push it over the edge -- without triggering World War III, as his many critics feared.
To reduce Moscow's hard-currency earnings, Reagan blocked a planned natural gas pipeline to Europe and pressured the Saudis to lower oil prices. (Russia is a big oil producer.) At the same time, Reagan increased defense spending and stepped up aid to anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan and Nicaragua. The Politburo was forced to match him, placing an intolerable strain on an already-weak economy.
To this economic and military pressure, Reagan added an important moral component. He was roundly vilified for denouncing the "evil empire," just as Bush was mocked for the "axis of evil." But by forthrightly denouncing communism, Reagan gave hope to the people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. When the Berlin Wall crumbled, he was acclaimed as a hero throughout Eastern Europe. Workers in Gdansk chanted, "Thank you, thank you" when Reagan visited the Polish city in 1990.
Reagan didn't bring down the Soviet empire by himself, but he certainly helped heighten the "internal contradictions" of communism. If this strategy worked against a seemingly invincible adversary such as the USSR, imagine how much easier it would be in the case of Kim Jong Il's much weaker and more isolated regime.
North Korea is already one of the poorest places on Earth. Millions of its people have died in famines during the past decade. According to a new human-rights report, hundreds of thousands work as slave laborers in concentration camps. What little money the regime has goes to support the armed forces and the champagne-and-caviar lifestyle of a handful of leaders whose guiding light is Robin Leach, not Karl Marx.
The government's funding comes from exports of legal goods (minerals, ginseng) and illicit ones (drugs, ballistic missiles, counterfeit currencies) supplemented by foreign aid. These revenue streams could be targeted by a U.S. campaign that uses all of the diplomatic, military, covert, moral and economic pressure at our disposal to bring down the "Dear Leader."
The goals of such a campaign are easy to articulate but hard to accomplish: Cut off food aid to North Korea from various nations. Halt fuel supplies from China and investment from South Korean firms. Do more to intercept North Korean ships carrying illegal goods. Convince neighboring countries to open their doors to North Korean refugees. Finally, try to break Pyongyang's information monopoly. North Koreans' constant diet of outlandish propaganda, reported New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, includes the claim that the Korean War was caused by capitalist aggression. The truth can set people free.
This strategy will require the active cooperation of other countries, especially China and South Korea. That may be exactly what Bush has been up to lately: By putting forth a good-faith diplomatic effort, he makes it more likely that North Korea's neighbors will be willing to get tough if negotiations collapse. But there's also a danger Bush will be trapped by his own rhetoric into striking a deal with North Korea that simply prolongs this nightmarish regime. He can best avoid that temptation by asking: What would Reagan have done?
Max Boot, the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Savage Wars of Peace, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.