Conservatives frequently complain that when it comes to Iraq, all the Democrats want to do is to criticize without offering any useful suggestions.
Yet now that the Bush administration has reached a tentative agreement with North Korea, it's conservatives who are complaining without offering any useful suggestions. The Washington Post reported that the complaints have come from both within the administration, in the form of deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, and without, from former UN Ambassador John Bolton and editorials in The National Review and the Wall Street Journal.
The sum total of the criticism amounts to this: the U.S. got a raw deal.
To which one must reply - in relation to what?
Conservative critics are almost certainly correct when they complain that the current agreement will not disarm the North. I've written before that it's extraordinarily unlikely that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) will disarm through a negotiated framework.
But that only gets you so far. It's quite easy to point out all the manifest flaws in any parchment agreement with the duplicitous regime of Kim Jong Il. It is quite another thing to propose a workable alternative. If the current deal stinks, where is the better solution?
The truth is, there isn't one.
If you need proof, just trace the arc of the Bush administration's North Korea policy. Did they consent to the so-called Six Party Agreement because they're really crypto-Clintonistas just waiting for the chance to give the store away to a beguiling dictator? Or did the difficult realities and narrow options of the North Korean standoff finally prevail?
The Bush administration took office deeply skeptical of President Clinton's North Korean diplomacy. As early as March 2001, President Bush was publicly questioning whether the North Koreans were living up to their previous agreements. The following year, in October, the administration would present the North Koreans with evidence of a clandestine uranium enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework's pledge for a "nuclear free" Korean Peninsula. The North responded by booting International Atomic Energy inspectors from its facilities and restarting its plutonium enrichment.
The administration was then faced with a choice, the same one, in fact, that it still faces. It could do nothing, insisting that all prior agreements be met before negotiations resumed, and allow the North to build-out its nuclear stockpile and long-range missile arsenal. It could attempt to impede or even reverse their progress through a negotiated settlement. Or they could attempt more coercive measures to unseat Kim Jong Il.
The administration settled on regional diplomacy, in the form of the Six Party talks with the North's neighbors. This approach contained two essential recognitions. The first was that nuclear weapons and the North Korean regime have become indelibly intertwined. Nukes keep the DPRK alive. They deter a U.S. attack and provide it with a convenient means to blackmail its neighbors. Any policy designed to completely disarm the regime must grapple with this symbiotic relationship.
As NRO's James Robbins, who was dismissive of this week's deal, correctly observed "the only way substantive and permanent change will come to the Korean peninsula is with the end of Kim Jong Il's regime. Any agreement we reach with Pyongyang only serves to push that date further into the future."
That's true, but that's also the nub of the problem. Which brings us to the second insight implicit in the Six Party talks: there is simply no way to "end" the Kim Jong Il regime without the active cooperation of China and South Korea. These two nations are not only most responsible for the regime's continued survival but they are the most vulnerable to its reprisals and the consequences of its collapse.
For the Six Party gambit to work, the United States had to convince China and South Korea that a nuclear North Korea was more of a danger to them than a destabilized one.
The administration has thus far failed to make that case. From the perspective of China and South Korea the current standoff, however uneasy, has been manageable. If they were to ratchet up the economic pressure on the North, as some want, Kim Jong Il might lash out with his considerable conventional arsenal. Even if the DPRK were to implode with a whimper and not a bang, both China and South Korea fear the consequences of a leaderless North Korea. There could be a sudden and massive wave of refugees cascading into both countries. Considering how politically explosive the much slower influx of Mexicans has been in the U.S., this is not a concern to be scoffed at.
They are also concerned about the North's massive army, which presumably would be instrumental in ushering Kim Jong Il out of the door. What becomes of them? What becomes of the North's nuclear arsenal?
So China and South Korea have looked these options in the eye and concluded that they are worse than living uncomfortably adjacent a nuclear North Korea. The question for the U.S. is what to do about that. Absent a blatant and serious provocation, the U.S. cannot simply overrule them and declare war on the North (thus putting South Korea's civilian population at risk) and we have just about exhausted, from our end, sanctions and embargoes.
Two administrations with dramatically different temperaments have now faced these options and concluded that some form of negotiated settlement is the least worst option available. Yes, the regime is untrustworthy and will break any accord it consents to. But if inspectors can be reinserted into the country, it will be difficult for the North to rapidly expand and improve upon its existing arsenal. If we cannot hope to stop or reverse the North's nuclear acquisition, we can at least impede it.
But what about Libya? Critics have positioned the North Korean deal in relation to the more favorable one we secured with Libya - which disarmed before receiving their carrots. Yet the two circumstances are in no way analogous. Libya's WMD program was not central to its survival in the way that the North Korean nuclear program is to the DPRK. The North had already demonstrated what it would do when presented with a demand to disarm first - increase its nuclear stockpile. There were also no powers like China or South Korea that would intercede on Libya's behalf and reward the country's defiance.
There is, though, plenty of room to question U.S. policy with regards to the nuclear standoff. For one, why is the United States still defending South Korea? The country has a GDP of $1.1 trillion with a strong, growing economy. Their army, fed by conscription, is quite large and capable. The country possesses the technical acumen to develop its own nuclear deterrent in short order. The same goes for Japan.
The logic of our deployment at the 38th parallel collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell. The North Koreans are no longer the menacing tip of a Communist spear threatening to engulf Asia but a "hermit kingdom" - dangerous, but isolated. The ideological battle that compelled the United States to defend South Korea is over - and we won.
Adjusting to this reality by withdrawing U.S. bases and defense commitments won't compel Kim Jong Il to lay down with the lambs, but it would transfer ownership of the problem to those nations most invested in the outcome.