If Jack Pritchard Doesn’t Believe Jack Pritchard, Why Should We?

Jack Pritchard probably comes to his role as South Korea’s  main policy mouthpiece honestly,  through a shared  belief that the next ten years of unrequited aid really will change North Korea into a peaceful, bucolic, union-free garment  district.  Pritchard is President of the Korea Economic  Institute, which  works  Washington’s Korea-watching and policy-making crowds through its regular sponsorship of social and academic dinner  events.  I’ve been to a few myself, and though I seldom agree with  what I hear there,  the speakers  are  always interesting and the food is good.  The  KEI makes no secret of the fact that it  acts  at the direction of the South Korean government; it is registered with the Justice Department  under the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act.  This is  just one of the legal ways foreign governments help their friends and  influence Washington in the direction of their interests.  And even if Pritchard doesn’t share that specific intent, his political alliances are an important  part of how you should should evaluate his arguments.   

Now that the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy  has become  a Jack Pritchard fantasy,  Pritchard rolls out this supportive  gesture:  “Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb.”   Pritchard’s critique should be familiar by now:  Bush  failed to engage  Kim Jong Il sufficiently and didn’t offer enough “carrots,” therefore it’s Bush’s  fault that Kim Jong Il stalled his way through five presidential terms and two decades of diplomacy while  working with persistent determination toward the construction of a nuclear arsenal.  I haven’t received my free advance copy yet, but the title  gives you a pretty good idea that Pritchard’s most convincing points  are made  unintentionally.  The first of these is that there’s no pleasing some people.  If you ever become President, remember that your critics won’t stop blaming you  just because  you give them everything they want.  Bush is now paying Kim Jong Il all the bribes and blackmail Pritchard has demanded since he stomped away from  the State Department  during Bush’s first term.   Bush is  doing bilateral talks, signing treaties that skimp on timelines and verification,  overlooking the greatest human rights atrocities since the Khmer Rouge,  helping  Kim  launder his dirty  money, and  acceding to  North Korea’s predictable noncompliance, now at three months and counting.  The fuel oil is flowing, and with all the aid North Korea is getting from the South, it’s hardly worth asking Congress for more.  Bush is reportedly even  considering a fast track to a peace treaty, or even diplomatic relations.   

I hope the genius who thought that  Agreed Framework 2.0  would  burnish President Bush’s legacy by mollifying its critics  is paying close attention.   There’s no  better example of how pointless it is trying to please determined enemies, especially at the cost of losing your friends.   Do you suppose  Condi was naive enough to  think that principle would move  Pritchard  to close ranks with Bush and defend him against John Bolton?   Things don’t work that way here.   Maybe Pritchard resents that he  didn’t have the privilege of negotiating  our latest  diplomatic failure, but hardly anyone doubts that he could have.   

As for Pritchard’s main charge, it’s technically true, especially when we speak of Bush’s Pritchardian diplomacy  of the last five months.  That’s probably not what Pritchard means,  however, so we have to negotiate a logical obstacle course.  Just in case Pritchard doesn’t point them out, let me help.   For one thing, don’t  read the book’s cover too carefully, because a long arm can reach into the memory hole and  pull out  a New York Times report informing us  that  North Korea actually  “got the bomb” when it  tested a plutonium device in Pakistan in 1998.  You don’t hear much mention of that now, probably because it’s pure  kryptonite for those who would defend the merits of the  first  Agreed Framework.  By  the time Bush  took office,  we  suspected  that North Korea had a crude nuclear capability, and certainly couldn’t assume that it didn’t.  We also knew that it had tunnels it could use to drive its nukes right  into downtown  Seoul.   In a 2002 interview, the head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said,

“North Korea is suspected to have already secured 7-22 kilograms (15-48 pounds) of plutonium before the inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency in May 1992, and produced one to three primitive nuclear bombs.”  [Newsmax]  

As early as 1994, this article in Time asked,  “Does North Korea have the bomb, and if it does, what should be done about it?” By the time you’re asking the first question, it’s a lot harder to answer the second.  Even then, we had to “assume North Korea already has two crude nuclear devices, as those who are paid to know such things assume.”  We can kibbitz about the number of bombs or  how well they were miniaturized, but it’s flat-out dishonest to  say  that North Korea “got the bomb” during Bush’s term.  Indeed, we should have done much  more to limit the number and quality of those bombs.  Each bomb is a new danger, and I don’t defend  the sufficiency of Bush’s efforts to confront that danger.  But it’s flat wrong to say that North Korea went nuclear during Bush’s term, or because Bush didn’t go back to what didn’t work the first time. 

Fom a policy perspective,  the  real possibility that  North Korea could set off even a “crude” nuke in  Seoul  has been a show-stopper since Clinton’s first term.   If you’re absolutely  determined to overlook Kim Jong Il in your search for someone to blame,  then  it would be at least at accurate to point the finger at Pritchard, who  was a senior  State Department official  during  the Clinton Administration.  If the policies he supported then worked so brilliantly, we wouldn’t still  be talking about  the same reactor we were talking about  then (as of today, the North Koreans claim to have shut  Yongbyon down; they’ve  done it  before, only to restart it later). 

The really  curious thing  about Pritchard’s entire line of argument is its woebegone acceptance that North Korea’s nuclear status is now irreversible.  If that’s so, Pritchard is unintentionally conceding the obvious:  North Korea can’t be disarmed by diplomacy alone.  Think about it:  if Jack Pritchard really trusts Kim Jong Il to keep his word, let us inspect his facilities  and verify his disarmament, and live in peace with his neighbors, what is  Pritchard  so worried about?  If Bush is  doing  what  Pritchard has been demanding for years, we’ll have Peace in  Our Time, right?  His tone unwittingly  answers for him.   North Korea  won’t live up to its terms of this deal, won’t allow meaningful verification of its compliance,  and won’t  give us bankable reassurance that it won’t (to borrow Brad Sherman’s expression) sell nukes on e-bay.  So if even Jack Pritchard himself doubts that our regime-sustaining  bribes can pry the nukes from Kim Jong Il’s clutches, what are we getting for our money?  Pritchard isn’t stupid.  He knows that the North Koreans lie, cheat, and murder without compunction.  He can’t believe that diplomacy alone can solve this problem.  He’s just too unimaginative and conflicted to see the alternatives.

Now, in fairness, Pritchard is also saying that it took Bush too long to see things his way, and here, Pritchard  has a point.  Bush could have made the decision to buy Kim Jong Il off, or he could have decided to  address  the problem’s  root cause  and end Kim Jong Il’s misrule through the determined application of political subversion and economic strangulation.  The problem is that he didn’t decide.  Instead, he dawdled  until the end of 2005 with a diplomatic formula that didn’t work any better than Clinton’s, and made a few encouraging statements about human rights that had no perceptible impact on policy but did give Bush’s critics and the Rodong Sinmun something to talk about.   For a brief period, we actually  tried cutting  Kim’s financial lifelines.  This actually worked, but  this is Washington, and since when do we stick with things that work?  I can’t help wondering how much  better it would have worked  had the people in Seoul who sign  Pritchard’s paychecks not undermined it  with  massive and unconditional aid payments  to Kim Jong Il.  And if you’re wondering how Seoul can afford both Jack Pritchard and Kim Jong Il, never forget that  its source of walking-around money  is a massive U.S. defense subsidy, along with the huge collateral boost our presence gives to  South Korea’s balance of payments.  Pritchard may not  have agreed with  that U.S. policy,  but he  can’t deny the ferocity of the conflict between American and Korean interests.  South Korea, though Jack Pritchard, now decries the very failure it worked so hard to secure,  which is a pretty disingenuous thing to do. 

Pritchard is right that the Bush Administration wasted most of the political capital it could have used to end the North Korea crisis once and for all.  But if not even Jack Pritchard really believes that a Jack Pritchard policy can disarm North Korea, it’s hard to believe that our mistake was not doing enough of it, or not  doing it soon enough.   A better argument may be that the legacy of Jack Pritchard’s policies and the connivance of his allies hobbled  Bush with challenges to which he proved unequal.

4 Comments

  1. You lose me on two points: First, the article you link to states that North Korea and Pakistan “may” have jointly tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, and cites monitoring that produced evidence that plutonium had been used. “May have” is a long way from “did”. You should have conditioned that with “this Nork-watcher assesses that…” Secondly, you state that you also know that the Norks have tunnels which they can use to drive a nuke into downtown Seoul. Are we talking anything other than the 4 DMZ tunners (4 of a suspected, but never proven, 24 tunnels)? Then where is the evidence? Other than Speedy Lee’s allegations, I’ve seen no proof that the Norks have any tunnels running under Seoul.




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  2. As to the first point, that’s another debate about intelligence uncertainties. I only have access to open sources, and I’m not sure sure those with TS/SCI clearances know with much more certainty. Point is: once your opponent MAY have nukes, your policy options are severely limited. We reached that point in 1994, and as you can see, that possibility did limit our options. If you’re asking me for absolute certainty, you have to know I can’t possibly provide that.

    A lot of what I know about tunnels comes from personal conversations, including with other military people. I won’t go into more specifics there, but the general suspicion that there are about 20 undiscovered tunnels was published by Gordon Cucullu, a former SF officer with USFK, in his book “Separated at Birth.”




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