[Overseasview]North’s window with the U.S. is closingWhen President George W. Bush appeared with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of the press on April 27 in Washington, you could almost hear the sound of the creaking door beginning to close on North Korea’s best opportunity for improved relations with the United States. It is well known that Abe and the Japanese government were nervous about the Feb. 13 agreement with North Korea and livid about the decision to return all of the frozen Banco Delta Asia money to Pyongyang in March.
Abe reportedly met alone with Bush to urge him to be more skeptical about North Korea and the president seemed to hear him. With Pyongyang now well past the 60-day deadline when it was supposed to shut down its facility at Yongbyon, the president stood by Abe and told the press that “our patience is not unlimited.”
He also noted that “if it looks like the North Korean leader is not going to honor his agreement ... we now have a structure in place to provide a strong message to North Korea. We have the capability of more sanctions; we have the capability of convincing other nations to send a clear message.”
The political wisdom in Washington these days is that it will be a matter of weeks, not months, before the president has to begin increasing pressure on Pyongyang. Right wing conservatives and neocons disagreed with the president on Feb. 13. Moderate conservatives (including this author) supported the agreement, but began to worry when it was unexpectedly announced in early March that all of North Korea’s money, including laundered money, would be returned in order to complete the deal.
Now the drumbeat of criticism is increasing again. By the summer, this will spread to the Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress.
North Korea has a bad habit of waiting out weakened U.S. presidents at the end of their terms. In 1991, the first Bush administration allowed for dialogue between Undersecretary of State Arnie Kantor and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Suk Joo, but Pyongyang did nothing with the opportunity because the Bush administration was ending. In 1999, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry proposed a road map for confidence-building between the United States and North Korea, but Pyongyang waited too long to respond and lost the opportunity for a visit by President Bill Clinton. Now the North Koreans appear once again to be buying time until the U.S. presidential election. They may be calculating that with the unpopularity of the Iraq War, the Democrats will win the White House and they can expect a softer line.
Once again, the North Koreans are failing to understand the dynamics of U.S. politics, as Democrats themselves admit these days. President Bush has allowed so many compromises to get a deal with North Korea, that if the North fails to honor its side of the bargain this time, no president ― Republican or Democratic ― can begin by offering an even better deal in 2009.
After all, the president went back on the original U.S. position that illegal laundered money would not be returned to Pyongyang, but the U.S. government saved some face by saying that the money would be distributed by the Bank of China for humanitarian purposes. When that scheme collapsed because the Bank of China was not consulted beforehand and wanted nothing to do with that tainted money, the U.S. side had to take the embarrassing step of arranging for North Korea to retrieve all of its cash directly from BDA.
Now Pyongyang is delaying further because it wants the U.S. side to arrange a transfer to a third-party bank so that the North can have free access to international banking transfers. Any way one looks at this process, it cannot be denied that the Bush administration has done somersaults trying to accommodate North Korea.
If North Korea continues dragging its feet and refusing to to abide by the commitments it has made, it is doubtful that any future American president could sell this Feb. 13 agreement, or anything like it, again.
The Democrats may win the White House in 2008, but they have a fundamental political problem they cannot escape: Ever since the Vietnam War, Democrats have been seen as too soft on national security issues. It might have been possible for a future Democratic administration to try selling a deal like Feb. 13 if the Bush administration had retained a policy of isolating North Korea. But now no Democratic presidential candidate is going to risk appearing weak by proposing more inducements after the United States has been tricked by North Korea.
One good example of this political dynamic was the first Democratic primary presidential debate on April 25. When asked what they would do if there were another terrorist attack on a U.S. city, Senator Barack Obama said that he would make certain there is good intelligence and that he would be careful not to react in a way that hurts America’s stature. That was an appeal to Democrats unhappy about the Iraq War, but Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards immediately saw Obama’s mistake and jumped in to say that the first thing they would do would be to find who was responsible and take action against the perpetrators.
Even in spite of their dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, the American people still want a president who will be tough on national security. If North Korea fails to respond to the Bush administration’s many recent compromises, a President Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, or even Barack Obama will not be able to pursue a soft line on the North.
If the Republicans win, the situation will be even tougher for North Korea. Senator John McCain is deeply skeptical about the administration’s accommodating stand toward the North and former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani repeatedly emphasizes that the United States must stay on the offensive to fight nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Governor Mitt Romney is being advised by Korea expert Mitchell Reese, but even Romney, a moderate, must respond to conservative dissatisfaction with the current administration’s approach.
North Korea now has the best window of opportunity it has ever had to realize a different relationship with the United States and Pyongyang is about to lose it.
Recent official Chinese visitors to Washington have been saying that the U.S. must take even more action to accommodate North Korea but that is no longer realistic. At a dinner last night, I was in a bipartisan group of Asia experts who tried to explain to a group of distinguished Chinese scholars that the United States could not be expected to make any more concessions to North Korea. We reminded the group that “only Nixon could go to China.” And we urged them to remind Pyongyang that only President Bush can make this deal happen. If the window closes because Pyongyang does not keep its part of the deal, then the North Koreans may some day wish they could have President Bush again. We hope the Chinese heard our message and conveyed it to Pyongyang.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green