It has been more than three years since U.S. President George W. Bush labeled North Korea a charter member of his "axis of evil," and ever since then, the opaque, hard-line Communist state has lurked just offstage, never quite becoming the U.S. Administration's foreign-policy crisis of the moment. There was the invasion of Afghanistan, then a war in Iraq that has been far messier than the Bush team ever anticipated. And there was the fact that all the while, as the North's intention to wield nuclear weapons persisted, as it demanded that Washington stop treating it as a pariah, the Administration struggled to come to grips with what, exactly, to do about it.
Now, the crisis that Washington didn't want may finally be at hand. And it comes at a moment when Bush's options for dealing with it are, at best, limited. Last week, for the first time, Kim Jong Il's government declared publicly that it already has nuclear weapons, and that it is determined to "bolster" its arsenal, ostensibly to fend off what it calls a "hostile" U.S. bent on regime change. The North also said it would refuse to show up at the fourth round of the so-called six-party talks. That is the diplomatic dance Washington had settled upon to try to pry Pyongyang from its nuclear desires, and which involved getting all of North Korea's neighbors—South Korea, China, Japan and Russia—to persuade it to come back from the brink, presumably in return for diplomatic and economic benefits.
That effort has now run aground. The Bush Administration, and its negotiating partners in East Asia, bravely tried to put a business-as-usual, "there-they-go-again" face on North Korea's statement. China "has noted [North Korea's announcement] that it will indefinitely suspend the six-party talks, and hopes that the six-party talks will continue," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Beijing. He didn't even mention the nuclear declaration. Newly minted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that Washington, for its part, wasn't surprised by what the North said. "The fact is, we have for some time taken account of the capacity of the North Koreans to perhaps have a few nuclear weapons," she said. The world had offered "a way out," she added, referring to the six-nation talks, "and they should take that way out."
In truth, this was anything but a business-as-usual moment. The Administration's worst nightmares about a nuclear North have apparently been realized. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bush included North Korea in his axis for one reason: it was a nation known to sell ballistic missiles and other weapons abroad in return for hard currency, and it seemed intent on building the Bomb, if, indeed, it hadn't done so already. Bush's point was clear: the North might peddle nukes, or the means to make them, to buyers bearing hard currency, Osama bin Laden included. The U.S., Bush insisted, could not allow that to happen.
As if to bolster that determination, early this month the President dispatched two members of his National Security Council to Beijing, bearing a letter to his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. China is the only country on earth thought to have any influence over the regime in North Korea—the oil and food Beijing provides is Pyongyang's lifeline—and the message from Bush was simple. It was time to get serious about dealing with the North. The letter's contents were straightforward, and stark. The U.S. Administration, Beijing was told, possessed solid evidence that North Korea had sold uranium hexafluoride—a necessary ingredient in the process of making a nuclear bomb—to Libya as recently as 2003. China had previously expressed skepticism about U.S. claims that the North was trying to build a weapon by enriching uranium. Here was proof, the letter said. Not only did North Korea have such a program, it was selling some of the products of it on the nuclear black market. The letter, says one Administration official, "made an impression" on the Chinese.
How big an impression, however, is open to question. The U.S. and its negotiating partners in Asia had still been groping for a united front—what carrots to offer the North to persuade it to give up its nukes, and what sticks to use if it didn't—when Pyongyang made its announcement last week. It might have been thought to have had a bracing effect. A nuclear North, openly declared as such, changes the strategic landscape in East Asia dramatically, raising the fear that Tokyo and even Taipei may look at their own nuclear options—something that should keep policymakers in Beijing (and everywhere else, for that matter) awake at night.
Yet even now, it is not clear whether China will adopt a tougher line toward Pyongyang. China has always been central to any diplomatic effort to isolate or, if necessary, reprimand North Korea, because its economic aid is critical to the North. Indeed, in March 2003 China is believed to have stopped shipping oil to Pyongyang for a few days to force it back to the negotiating table. But Beijing remains more interested in forestalling an economic collapse in North Korea—one that could send millions of destitute people across the border into China in search of work—than it is in participating in any sanctions on Pyongyang that the U.S. now might propose. Faced with a choice between a nuclear-armed but relatively stable North Korea and one cut off entirely from the outside world, Beijing is likely to reluctantly keep the aid spigot turned on.
Beijing knows now that the U.S. will try to cajole it into altering that calculation, and into letting the U.N. Security Council impose economic sanctions on North Korea for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it signed in 1985. Given that war on the Korean Peninsula is unthinkable, it's the only plausible choice Washington has, but the Administration should probably not get its hopes up. This week, a senior Chinese Communist Party official charged with coordinating the six-party talks, Wang Jiarui, is scheduled to travel to Pyongyang. What exactly he will say is anybody's guess. What he'll hear may be predictable. Just last month, a mid-level diplomatic delegation from China went to the North Korean capital for talks aimed at restarting the six-party gabfest. What they heard—pure Party-line denouncements of the U.S. and the six-party talks—was very discouraging. "Even if China cuts aid," one source briefed on the talks concluded, "[the North Koreans] will not weaken."
Secretary of State Rice, for her part, is meeting this week in Washington with her counterparts from Tokyo and Seoul. South Korea, deeply committed to its own policy of investment in and engagement with the North, will try to convince her that Pyongyang's announcement is simply part of its negotiating strategy. "The North is saying to the U.S., 'Give us more compensation,'" says Baek Seung Joo, director of North Korea research at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. And in fact, a senior North Korean diplomat, deputy U.N. ambassador Han Song Ryol, sent conflicting signals last week as to whether the North would actually come back to the table. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said, "Six-party talks is old story. No more." But speaking to a left-wing South Korean newspaper, the diplomat said Pyongyang might return to the negotiating table "when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe."
The Bush Administration is unlikely to spend much time parsing what that was supposed to mean. More likely, it will focus on what the North has cited as the reason for pulling out of the talks and for telling the world it has nuclear weapons: the U.S. President's State of the Union address on Feb. 2, and Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearing. Bush barely mentioned North Korea in his speech, but did say, as Han pointed out, that the United States was in favor of freedom and opposed tyranny. That, coupled with Rice's Senate testimony in which she named North Korea as "an outpost of tyranny," apparently drove the North to take the action it did. Ambassador Han said his nation was convinced that the U.S. was "targeting us."
If Kim Jong Il believes what his man at the U.N. said, the possibility of a grand bargain with North Korea may well be gone. From the U.S. perspective, Bush simply stated the obvious, and Rice simply stated a fact. Bush means it when he talks of spreading freedom and ending tyranny. Administration hard-liners on North Korea say the idea that a U.S. President who has spent so much American blood and treasure in Iraq will now offer sufficient incentives to get an offended North Korea back to the table is, to put it mildly, unlikely. But the hard-liners themselves are frustrated by the inability of the Administration to exact a price from Pyongyang for its nuclear adventurism. "What [the North Koreans] have learned so far," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., "is that there are no red lines. The red lines must be infrared, because they are invisible." The new reality that emerged in East Asia last week—North Korea defiantly brandishing its nukes, and the talks aimed at getting rid of them derailed, possibly for good—isn't likely to change anytime soon. Better get used to it.