Diplomatic Diary: Dealing With The Nuclear North

To the outside world, the eternal struggle over American foreign policy may seem perplexing. But for those at the heart of it all, every punctuation mark in every policy paper represents part of a much bigger challenge: how to exert American power in the world. Even the smallest battles are fought as if the entire direction of U.S. policy depended on their outcome.

Take North Korea. You might be forgiven for thinking that it would be relatively easy to find agreement within President George Bush's administration on how to deal with the weird world of Kim Jong Il, one of the planet's last Stalinist leaders. After all, the administration managed to hold itself together in the buildup to war in Iraq--a conflict that most of the rest of the world found unpalatable.

But the policy debate over how to deal with the communist North is once again tearing apart the administration's foreign policy team. Often, in journalistic shorthand, it gets boiled down to a simple formula: hawks versus doves, Defense Department versus State Department. But, in fact, the divisions are far more complex, splitting departments along ideological lines. It might be more accurately described as a battle between hardliners versus compromisers. As U.S. officials prepare to negotiate directly with North Korea this week, at a series of talks hosted by the Chinese government in Beijing that begin Wednesday, administration officials say the infighting between these two groups is more intense than in any other diplomatic battle.

In North Korea's case, the hardliners are pushing hard for a mini-Cold War against Pyongyang. That means a Reaganesque approach to nuclear arms talks (rather than what they see as the Carteresque position of the Clinton years). It means pressure on Kim's few supporters to tighten the screws, including leaning on China and Russia to use their economic leverage to de-nuke the North. And it might even take the form of some form of interdiction or blockade around North Korea--intercepting shipments of missiles and stopping North Korean officials from traveling, for example. The goal: to bring about the rapid collapse of Kim's regime.

That's a prospect that alarms the compromisers enormously. After all, the North is almost certainly in possession of nuclear weapons already, and it has a huge army poised to inflict tremendous casualties on South Korea. It also alarms them because--short of an unthinkably costly war--the compromisers believe the only realistic way to deal with the North is to negotiate another deal. Sure, the North has reneged on all previous deals to end its nuclear programs. But there seems little alternative to a negotiated deal, and that leaves the uncomfortable task of compromising with a loathsome regime.

That ideological divide between hardliners and compromisers has only deepened as the talks with the North move closer. In the run up to this week's discussions in Beijing, there were bitter struggles over some things as seemingly minor as the talking points for U.S. officials. The hardliners wanted to script very tightly what was offered by the administration in Beijing; the compromisers wanted the freedom to negotiate their own position with the mercurial North Koreans. And those are just the talks about the talks: this week's session is designed merely to set the stage for a bigger meeting--with the help of other players such as Japan, South Korea and possibly the European Union--to confront the real problem of dismantling the North's nuclear programs.

So when the North resumed its belligerent tone last week--proclaiming the need for its own deterrent and bragging about reprocessing nuclear fuel rods--the hardliners saw a chance to torpedo the talks they never wanted. The administration engaged in one more struggle over whether it was worth talking at all, before the State Department went ahead and sent an interagency team to China on Monday.

More unsettling for the compromisers was the position of China itself. Aides to Secretary of State Colin Powell said that China's role was critical in convincing the rest of the administration to support the very idea of sitting down with the North. They even claimed that China's offer to host the three-way session was a personal triumph for Powell, following his visit to the Chinese capital in February. "Some people were writing that the Chinese stiffed him," said one senior State Department official. "But the Chinese are more helpful now and have been keeping in touch about this with the Secretary."

Yet the North Koreans, who insist on negotiating directly with the United States, made it clear that the Chinese were merely pouring the tea at this week's meetings. And the Chinese ambassador to South Korea appeared to confirm that view. "I don't think China plans to mediate," Ambassador Li Bin told South Korean radio last week. Those comments alarmed even the compromisers at the State Department, who were seriously reconsidering the value of talks late last week.

If you believe Newt Gingrich, these failures are largely the fault of the State Department. The former House speaker and now part-time adviser to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday that "America cannot lead the world with a broken instrument of diplomacy." He called for "dramatic change at the State Department," saying that Powell's troops were putting "at risk" the administration's foreign policy.

Gingrich was mostly concerned with the Middle East, but North Korea's case reveals a bigger problem. Much of the reason for the administration's internal policy battles is the unclear direction of the president's policy towards Pyongyang. With one hand he gives support to the hardliners by branding North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and elevating the threat of weapons of mass destruction to the top of his global agenda. With the other hand, he gives support to the compromisers by effectively taking the military option off the table.

If that didn't create enough confusion, the White House also insisted it will not negotiate with the North. The suggestion is that the United States will not trade aid for the North's nukes. In practice, however, it is hard to sit down for talks without engaging in some kind of negotiation. If this week's meetings mean anything, they mean that the Bush administration is ready to come to some sort of deal.

Of course it will be tough--and maybe impossible--to convince the North Koreans to give up their nuclear ambitions. But it may prove just as tough to convince the administration's conservatives to give up their cold war ambitions and accept the concept of compromising with the communists.

Diplomatic Diary: Dealing With The Nuclear North | News