North Korea: The Next Big Crisis

In defense and foreign policy circles, policymakers are fond of starting major speeches by reminding people that they cannot predict where “the next big crisis” will occur. An exception to that rule may be the Korean peninsula, where signs of trouble are breaking out all over and the Clinton Administration is starting to pay serious, if belated, attention.

North Korea, beset by severe economic woes, international isolation, and a potential succession crisis from Kim Il-Song to Kim Jong-Il, is in its most dangerous posture in many years. The North Korean regime has essentially stalled and then shut the door on any meaningful nuclear inspection program, and it has continued its drive to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. By any measure, the U.S., South Korea, and most of Asia ought to be worried.

And while everyone agrees that the potential for a major crisis initiated by North Korea is growing, the disagreements start when we debate what to do about it.

When Defense Secretary William Cohen was recently in South Korea, the issue of international economic sanctions against North Korea was floated. Perry insisted the idea, but others–such as columnist Charles Krauthammer–have pushed economic sanctions as a means to further isolate the North Koreans.

I believe additional, formal economic sanctions against North Korea would be a bad idea right now. First of all, international economic sanctions rarely, if ever, have the desired effect. They failed against Iraq before the Persian Gulf war, they have failed to force a peace settlement in Bosnia, and they have completely failed to bring minimally desirable results in Haiti. International sanctions are the Rodney Dangerfield of foreign policy: they “don’t get no respect” from governments they are supposed to influence.

Secondly, additional international sanctions could help manufacture the crisis that North Korea’s leaders want. They need a crisis to rally the people to their unsuccessful regime, one that has brought nothing but poverty, suffering and death to North Korea. In addition, Kim Jong-Il might welcome a crisis as he tries to rein in a restive military establishment that is not 100 percent behind his accession to power.

In short, the use of international economic sanctions at this juncture might bring about just the type of desperate attack that they are meant to prevent. So what are the United States and its ally, South Korea, to do?

We need to take some steps that might really help the situation. First, increase military support in and around South Korea. Let the North Koreans know that any military action, conventional or otherwise, would be suicidal. We should not debate whether the U.S. should slowly reduce its forces in South Korea; rather, we should consider whether and how we can augment them. Greater military pressure, not economic sanctions, would be the correct response–and it is the only language the North Koreans seem to understand.

Second, help South Korea do an even better job in its own defense. Don’t cancel the joint U.S.-South Korean annual exercise, “Team Spirit,” a decision which is under discussion. Encourage South Korea to request the sale of modernized armaments and airplanes for its own defense forces. And exert U.S. leadership in getting other allied countries to support South Korea with military assistance, equipment and training.

Finally, don’t talk tough if we’re not prepared to act tough. President Clinton has had trouble with this concept since he came into office. There should be absolutely no doubt about the depth of U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea. Perhaps the worst foreign policy mistake Bill Clinton could make as President would be to continue mouthing platitudes of concern about the North Korean threat, but then not be prepared to back up those platitudes if, God forbid, North Korea takes military action.

During the past two years, the U.S. has zig-zagged through a number of international crises but has rarely solved the problems attached to them. This approach has left our friends worried and our enemies opportunistic. In putting together a realistic, tough and consistent policy to deal with North Korea, President Clinton will either learn from his mistakes or potentially plunge us into one of the biggest international crises of this century. His chief foreign policy spokesmen are saying all the right things; let’s see if they can back it up with an effective policy.