January 16, 2003

January 16, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Pointing the Finger of Blame

The ominous drumbeat coming out of North Korea's state-controlled media is threatening, but it's nothing new. The dark mutterings about a "Third World War" that "knows no mercy" waged against the "U.S. warmongers" and turning Seoul into a "sea of fire" is a familiar screed for the Pyongyang regime, which considers such colorful saber-rattling just another way of doing business.

Unfortunately, this fact appears lost on President Bush's critics here at home. Indeed, they're claiming not only that he has mishandled the North Korea situation but that he caused it in the first place.

How? By being "counterproductively confrontational," according to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. The president's "inflammatory language" and his "tough talk … triggered the current crisis," adds USA Today.

It started, we're told, when he named North Korea a member of the Axis of Evil in last year's State of the Union speech and went downhill from there. Now, we've "bullied" Pyongyang to the point where "a difficult challenge on the Korean peninsula [has become] a dangerous crisis," Lieberman says.

All of which might make sense if our problems with North Korea didn't begin long before President Bush arrived in Washington.

The fact is, he had good reason to use the word "evil" to describe one of the last of the totalitarian communist regimes. We're talking, after all, about a government that represses and starves its people to keep its million-man army fed and supplied. One that has breached four international arms-control agreements and made no secret of its desire to build itself into a nuclear power. One that proliferates ballistic missiles to the world's most volatile regions, such as South Asia and the Middle East. One that runs drugs and counterfeits currency.

Did any of this begin after the president's speech? No.

OK, the critics may reply, North Korean officials aren't angels. But what about the way President Bush has harmed relations with South Korea, a key ally?

No one can deny that Washington and Seoul hit a temporary rough patch in their relationship recently. But rumors of a serious rift between Seoul and Washington are just that -- rumors. The United States and South Korea remain in lock-step on the core issues of ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and their relationship -- based on shared values of freedom, democracy and open markets -- is rock-solid.

Contrast that with the way South Korea is treated by North Korea: Every time Seoul urges the United States to engage in "dialogue," Pyongyang escalates the war rhetoric, leaving its neighbor open to accusations of appeasement.

Then there's the charge of "inconsistency." Compare how President Bush is treating North Korea with how he's treating Iraq, the critics say. One gets kid gloves, the other gets the back of his hand. What gives?

Surface similarities aside, there's no reason for President Bush's approach to North Korea to mirror his approach to Iraq. Yes, both are ruled by regional despots who brutalize their people as they pursue weapons of mass destruction. But Saddam Hussein is an expansionist megalomaniac who wants to unite the Arab peoples of the Gulf region under his rule, and Kim Jong Il -- for all his bluster -- seems obsessed with regime survival and garnering aid. Saddam poses a more serious, immediate risk to the United States and its friends and allies than Kim does, and he should be handled accordingly.

We must realize that a cookie-cutter approach to foreign policy won't work. In the Axis of Evil, one size doesn't fit all.

And why shouldn't the United States publicly demand that North Korea honor its agreements and retrench on its nuclear program in a verifiable manner before entering into direct negotiations? The fact that Kim Jong Il's government is violating four weapons treaties should make us wary of immediately jumping into another agreement with it.

No one's saying we shouldn't allow diplomacy and international pressure to run their courses before we consider a more muscular policy. But we must be careful not to reward bad behavior and encourage other rogues to use blackmail and extortion to force the United States to negotiate on their terms. The president understands that appeasement and weakness invite provocation. Indeed, his decision to move forward on missile defense is a practical element of dealing with the likes of North Korea.

In this case, what's "counterproductive" is blaming the president. It empowers those whose most ardent wish is to divide us. Kim Jong Il is the mid-wife of this situation, not George W. Bush.


Peter Brookes is director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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