Bush's Bipolar Foreign Policy in North Korea

Article excerpt


It is quickly becoming passe to take shots at former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration. But as one reviews the past eight years of North Korea policy it's hard not to cringe a little (or a lot). Though often eclipsed by higher-profile foreign policy misadventures in the Middle East and South Asia, the Bush administration's mismanagement of North Korea is nonetheless a diplomatic failure to rival all others.

From initially vilifying North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil" and ceasingall meaningful diplomatic contact to more recently coddling leader Kim Jong-il's regime in desperate hopes of an 11th hour foreign policy success (a fruitless effort), the Bush administration demonstrated a truly bipolar North Korea policy. The incredible hubris of the hawks in the first term eventually ceded to the over-conciliatory doves of the second. Over the last eight years, Pyongyang (capital of North Korea) has seen, within a single administration, one of the most dramatic reversals of U.S. foreign policy in recent memory. The result has been a confusing amalgam of carrots and sticks, which, combined with North Korea's reliably bizarre behavior, has resulted in a nearly decade-long soap opera of diplomacy--diplomacy which has produced essentially nothing.

Along the way there have been shutdowns and start-ups of nuclear reactors, floods, famines, six-party talks, shipments of food aid, shipments of heavy fuel aid, sanctions, missile tests, press conferences, nuclear tests, congressional hearings, a whole lot of saber rattling, a little detente, tons of photo ops, and even a nice visit from the New York Philharmonic. In the end, however, the Bush administration found itself right back where it started. Except that on its watch, Pyongyang developed, tested, and stockpiled nuclear weapons, ostensibly sold such technology to Syria, left the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and continued eight unfettered years of some of the world's most deplorable human rights violations.

This critique is not intended to be nostalgic, longing for a return to the glory days of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's North Korea policy. Those days were not all that glorious. Nor is it intended to belittle the very real and admirable efforts of American diplomats who for the past few years have negotiated tirelessly with their North Korean interlocutors. We are better off for their service. Rather, it is meant as a sound rebuke of the conservative ideologues in Washington who refused, especially during the first term, to let those diplomats do their jobs.


For almost six years, hard-liners in the administration, perturbed by North Korea's inane behavior, responded with some inane behavior of their own by shutting off all meaningful communication with Pyongyang. However, instead of cowering in the chilly diplomatic silence of the collective cold shoulder of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former United Nations envoy John Bolton, the North Koreans made use of their newfound lack of supervision and got busy building nuclear weapons. As a result, U.S. allies and forces in the region now enjoy all the security dilemmas that come with an ever-unpredictable and now nuclear-armed North Korea--a North Korea that is still holding at least thirty kilograms of plutonium, enough for five or more new weapons.

Even after several major concessions, including removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Bush administration was unable to garner any information about, let alone shut down, a suspected North Korean highly enriched uranium program. The administration was also unable to secure any declaration regarding the number of weapons that are currently in the North Korean arsenal. These central pieces of the puzzle are still missing, and American negotiators now seem to have hit an impasse with the North Koreans both in multilateral and bilateral frameworks. …