Bush Bites His Tongue

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

February 9, 2005

There are two words the Bush administration doesn't want you to think about: North Korea.

That's because the most dangerous failure of U.S. policy these days is in North Korea. President Bush has been startlingly passive as North Korea has begun churning out nuclear weapons like hot cakes.

The dangers were underscored with last week's reports that the uranium in Libya's former nuclear program may have come from North Korea. Indeed, Mr. Bush seems to recognize that his policy has failed - that's why he isn't talking much about North Korea now, at least publicly, and why (as reported in The Times today) he sent an emissary to talk last week with the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, about how to tame North Korea.

North Korea is particularly awkward for Mr. Bush to discuss publicly because, as best we know, it didn't make a single nuclear weapon during Bill Clinton's eight years in office (although it did begin a separate, and secret, track to produce uranium weapons; it hasn't produced any yet but may eventually). In contrast, the administration now acknowledges that North Korea extracted enough plutonium in the last two years for about half a dozen nuclear weapons.

In fairness, Mr. Bush is paralyzed only because the alternatives are dreadful. A military strike on North Korea's nuclear sites might have been an option in the early 1990's, but today we don't know where the plutonium and the uranium are kept, so a military strike might accomplish little - but trigger a new Korean war. To fill the time, Mr. Bush has pursued six-party talks involving North Korea, but they have gotten nowhere.

So what would work?

The other option is the path that Richard Nixon pursued with Maoist China: resolute engagement, leading toward a new "grand bargain" in which Kim Jong Il would give up his nuclear program in exchange for political and economic ties with the international community. This has the advantage that the best bet to bring down Mr. Kim, the Dear Leader, isn't isolation, but contacts with the outside world.

A terrific new book on North Korea, "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader" by Bradley Martin, underscores how those few glimpses that North Koreans have had of the outside world - by working in logging camps in Russia or sneaking trips to China - have helped undermine Mr. Kim's rule. Yet Westerners have in effect cooperated with him by helping to keep his borders sealed.

At least China and South Korea have a strategy to transform North Korea: encourage capitalism, markets and foreign investment. Chinese traders, cellphones and radios are already widespread in the border areas, and they are doing more to weaken the Dear Leader than anything Mr. Bush is doing.

North Korea is the eeriest and most totalitarian country I've ever visited, making even Saddam Hussein's Iraq seem normal by comparison. I realized how regimented the entire country was when I stopped two girls randomly on the street for an interview on a 1989 trip and the girls started praising their leaders - reciting identical lines in perfect unison.

In his new book, Mr. Martin tells the story of how one of the Dear Leader's assistants, while drunk, told his wife about his boss's womanizing. The wife, apparently a true believer in the North Korean system, was shocked and wrote a letter to the leadership to protest this immorality.

The Dear Leader had the woman brought to him, then denounced her before a crowd and ordered her shot. At that point, her husband begged to be allowed to kill her. Graciously acceding, Mr. Kim handed him a gun to kill his own wife.

So this is a regime that is not just menacing, but monstrous. Mr. Bush is right to regard it with loathing. But U.S. policy on North Korea for the last four years has only strengthened Mr. Kim and allowed him to expand his nuclear arsenal severalfold.

The risk is that Mr. Bush will respond to the failure of his first term's policy by adopting an even harder line in the coming months, seeking Security Council sanctions (he won't get them) and ultimately imposing some kind of naval quarantine. That would only strengthen Mr. Kim's grip on power, as well as risk a war on the Korean peninsula. A Pentagon study in the 1990's predicted that such a war could kill one million people.

In short, our mishandling of North Korea has been appalling - and it may soon get worse.