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.