Originally published in The New York Times online on December 21, 2011, MacArthur President Robert Gallucci discusses North Korea following the death of Kim Jong-il.
The death of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and the ascendance to power of one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, creates some opportunities and potential traps for the administration and senior leaders in the United States — things they should be sure to say and be sure not to say.
First, we should recognize that we have been here before. Sort of. In 1994, I learned of the death of Kim Il-sung in an early morning telephone call from the South Korean foreign minister. I was in Geneva leading negotiations with the North Koreans over their nuclear weapons program. The first question in the minds of those in Washington and Seoul was how the transition of power in North Korea from father to son would change things — whether the negotiations would continue, whether it would be business as usual or the beginning of a crisis. We preferred the former and, as it turned out, so did the North. The talks continued and an agreement was signed that stopped the North’s plutonium production until we abandoned the deal eight years later, because of the North’s cheating with uranium enrichments technology.
We may be as fortunate this time, even though this son is a lot younger and less experienced than his father was when he assumed authority. The traditional mourning period in Korea is a year, and even Kim Jong-il, who was by then a familiar figure in North Korean power circles, took almost that long before assuming all the leadership positions his own father had held. The lesson here is patience: we should resist drawing conclusions too soon about who is really in charge in North Korea.
Heading the “do not say” list for any American leader, or would-be leader, is that this is the time to promote or provoke regime change in North Korea. We used to hear a lot about regime change about a decade ago, with reference to the Axis of Evil, and now the phrase is being resurrected to capture the urge to get rid of North Korea’s horrendous totalitarian government.
There may never be a good time to openly advocate the overthrow of the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and certainly the moment when a new young leader may have to decide whether he needs to prove his leadership prowess is definitely not the right time. Insisting on regime change now, as Mitt Romney came very close to doing in a statement on Monday morning, creates no incentive for this government to even consider negotiations, or to contemplate backing off or ever giving up its nuclear weapons program. It is just plain dumb.
What does make sense is to continue to deplore the humanitarian catastrophe that is life in North Korea and to say that we would welcome the day when the government in that country moved toward democratic governance and a free economy.
Among the first things we should tell the North is that we remain prepared to enter discussions aimed at halting, rolling back and ultimately dismantling its nuclear weapons program. This may sound like old news, but it is not. The Obama administration has been sensitive to the domestic political needs of its ally, South Korea, which demand that before proceeding to talks, the United States should obtain some acknowledgement from the North of responsibility for the deaths caused by the sinking of a South Korean ship and the shelling of a South Korean island. The president’s advisers have also been sensitive to anticipated criticism from Republicans that initiating talks with the North would represent appeasement, would demonstrate naïveté, would amount to buying the same horse twice and would teach the North the wrong lesson.
In the past, the administration has been too sensitive to these domestic considerations. It should now seize an opportunity, if one opens, to resume talks about ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. To do so would not be appeasement, because little would be given without the North’s performance. It would not be naïve, since we well understand the North Korean mentality. And it would not be a re-purchase because the last time we talked, we did get much of what we paid for, and we should now be prepared to finish the deal.
Moreover, we should not be in the business of teaching other governments lessons. We should adopt the best policies to protect our national security. Right now, that means entering a serious discussion about the North’s nuclear weapons program, aimed at its dismantlement.
Finally, there is an opportunity for the administration to tell the North Koreans something hard and realistic that they desperately need to hear during a transition to new leadership: the United States will not tolerate the transfer to another government or terrorist group of any nuclear weapons material or technology or fissile material, and we will respond with devastating consequences for the North if we learn of such a transfer.
The North’s role in the secret construction in Syria of a plutonium production reactor in 2007 should have crossed a red line for the Bush administration. It apparently did not. Had it not been for Israel’s version of a nonproliferation policy — aerial bombardment of the site — the Middle East might already have been fundamentally changed by the North’s outrageous move. Our security is endangered by any such transfers, which make nuclear terrorism and the loss of whole cities entirely plausible. Our government needs to make sure the new government in North Korea never attempts such transfers again.