Appeasing North Korea: the Clinton Legacy

Democrats have begun a desperate-yet-predictable effort to blame North Korea’s nuclear aspirations on President George W. Bush’s strident rhetoric.  Despite their leftist cant, they seem remarkably uninterested in the “root causes” of Pyongyang’s current nuclear brinksmanship: Bill Clinton’s eight years of appeasement and the gullible cordiality of the South Korean government.

Threats of a nuclear winter did not mix well with Clinton’s sunny disposition.  Clinton, who saw the domestic front thronged with “crises,” refused to disturb his illusion of a post-Cold War world at complete peace under his watch.  He had two private conversations with CIA Director James Woolsey in as many years, willfully laboring under delusions of supra-national serenity.  He famously misled the public that “there’s not a single, solitary nuclear missile pointed at an American child tonight” before asking China to re-orient its missiles away from U.S. population centers.  When al-Qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Center, two U.S. embassies in Africa and the U.S.S. Cole, he bombed nothing, an empty tent, and nothing, respectively.  This refusal to confront reality precipitated the present crisis in Korea, as well.

If Iraq’s nuclear policy in the 1990s constituted a “decade of defiance,” Bill Clinton’s negotiations with North Korea represented a “decade of delusion.”  Evidence that North Korea was violating the nuclear Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty surfaced within weeks of Clinton’s first inauguration. After a year of inaction allowed Pyongyang to create at least one nuclear weapon, the emboldened Stalinists announced their formal withdrawal from the treaty.  It seemed North Korean officials were angling for a payoff.  They must have realized they struck the jackpot when Clinton named tough-as-nails Jimmy Carter as his principal negotiator.

Under the final terms of the Agreed Framework approved in October 1994, Clinton agreed to provide the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea” (DPRK) with two light water nuclear reactors and a massive allotment of oil.  The U.S. agreed to ship 500,000 metric tons of oil annually in response to the North’s pretense that the energy-starved backwater had developed the nuclear facility to generate power.  These shipments have cost taxpayers more than $800 million to date — a bargain compared with the $6 billion spent on constructing the nuclear reactors, which now empower North Korea to produce 100 nuclear bombs each year.

All these measures failed to quell the North’s atom-lust.

In August 1998, North Korea lobbed a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan. Four months later, officials refused U.S. inspectors access to a suspected underground nuclear reactor at Kumchang-ni.  President Clinton then sweetened the deal by rewarding Kim Jong-il’s half-year-long stall tactics with 1.1 million tons of food worth nearly $200 million. Not surprisingly, American inspectors found no signs of wrongdoing at the long-sanitized facility.

Even the seemingly humanitarian food aid turned into a weapon in North Korea’s hands.  Reports abound that rations have been redirected to the DPRK’s military, the fifth largest in the world.  This is nothing new. Using food as a weapon dates back at least to Stalin.  Communist Ethiopia similarly misused international aid in the 1980s.  With this in mind, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-NY, warned in 1999, “(A)ny food aid we provide to North Korea…must be monitored to prevent diversion to the military and the party cadre. Unscheduled, unsupervised visits by American, Korean-speaking monitors would assist us in this regard.”  It didn’t happen.

It seems little wonder North Korea has made threats of nuclear conflagration its only functional export industry, besides the weapons themselves.  Even as floods and famine emaciated its nearly 22 million citizens, regime leaders in this “worker’s paradise” earmarked every available dollar for guns, not butter, in the hope that Uncle Sam would pay their price without demanding accountable disarmament.  Their gamble paid off.  Clinton’s appeasement programs made North Korea the leading recipient of foreign aid in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton’s policy toward North Korea, a queer amalgamation of Clement Atlee and Alfred E. Newman, has proven disastrous.  The most isolated nation in the world has possessed a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States (the Taepodong-2 missile) since at least 1999.  Its modern-day commissars have threatened to use these missiles against America a minimum of three times in 21 months.  After kicking UN inspectors out of the Yongbyong facility, the short trip to full nuclear status has been quickly engaged.

With Marxist saber-rattling threatening an atomic showdown on the peninsula, South Korea should be in the lead denouncing the aggressive posture taken north of the 38th parallel.  Instead, Seoul has saved its greatest ire for the United States while cozying up with Pyongyang. Polls show more than half of all South Korean youths hold a negative view of America.  This generation has been loudest in its call to expel the 37,000 U.S. GIs stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to protect them from 1.1 million of their beloved uniformed northern neighbors. President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who campaigned on an anti-American platform, has pledged to continue the “Sunshine policy” of benign exchange, assistance, and interaction across the DMZ.  Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, spoke openly of the policy’s goal: reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

How this policy engulfed the longstanding military tension evident for 50 years makes an interesting story in useful idiocy.  While the Korean Conflict has never formally ended, contemporary South Korea has remarkably little fear that the North will transgress the world’s longest ceasefire and shows even less appreciation for the tens of thousands of American soldiers (including this writer’s grandfather) who died the last time the Stalinists made just such a gambit.

A successful Communist PR operation has swept past transgressions down the memory hole.  In recent years, North Korea has allowed families bisected by its border to hold first-ever reunions.  The sight of octogenarians visiting children for the first time in half a century tugs at the heartstrings. And the North has carefully orchestrated sympathetic coverage of these reunions.

The DPRK has stoked the fires of racial solidarity in its rapprochement with Seoul. A banner carefully placed behind a 100-year-old mother visiting her son read, “We have the same blood, the same nation, and the same mind.” The consanguinity of Koreans again took center stage during the 2000 Olympics, when the nations’ athletes entered wearing common uniforms in front of the “unification flag.” A North Korean Olympic official took the opportunity during general press conference grandstanding to hit his talking point, chirping, “We are the same blood.” Under Dae-jung’s leadership, the two Koreas have begun mutual projects, such as an unfinished railway across both nations and joint industrial ventures. With an ethnic unity further cemented by a warming public image, North Korea could say in its New Year’s message that “there exists on the Korean Peninsula at present only confrontation between the Koreans in the North and the South and the United States.”

In 1952-1953, near the time of Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union discussed reunifying East and West Germany in a desperate attempt to avoid an arms buildup in West Germany. (Ironically, it was President Reagan’s deployment of ICBM missiles in western Europe 30 years later that would prove a major element in the Soviets’ collapse.) The East Germans made similar appeals to their separated brethren, appeals made more substantial by the recent hysterical focus on the “one blood” of the Aryan race. Today’s pretenders have not missed a trick.

Diverting attention from the regime’s bloodthirsty leadership to the common peasants trapped under its rule is a classic totalitarian tactic. Throughout the Cold War, Communist propagandists and their cadre of domestic sympathizers and dupes consistently chanted the mantra that Russians are “just people.” And after all, aren’t we all “just people”? Well-insulated Western visitors would invariably return home to note the warmth (and intense joy) of the Soviet people within the Marxists’ iron grip. After one such trip Billy Joel would croon, “We never knew all the friends we had, in Leningrad.”

South Koreans have not just friends but relatives — the “same blood” — across the DMZ.  Any military solution risks killing their own kin. Contrary to the North Korean propaganda machine, though, the two Koreas do not share “the same mind.”  South Korean freedom and economic expansion have shown their starving northern counterparts the possibilities of liberalization, an overture the DPRK has steadfastly rejected. It has instead played the role of an atomic bully. Who, exactly, do South Koreans believe will be the North’s first nuclear hostages? Apparently, the point is obscured from the pleasant glow of current North-South relations. The North will undoubtedly clarify the point when it suits its purposes.

The attempt to blame the current state of affairs on Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech is cowardly blame-shifting of the worst sort. It is holding the solution responsible for the problem. Clinton’s coddling of dictators with a yearning for Weapons of Mass Destruction got us here. But North Korea is only one bloom from the seeds planted during his tenure as commander-in-chief, when he forged what one critic called an “astonishing reversal of nine previous U.S. administrations” and their refusal to negotiate with terrorists. It is a dangerous world, and one cannot imagine what future dictators will expect to negotiate for during future incidences of nuclear blackmail. Provided they are interested in negotiating at all.

This article originally ran as the lead article on January 3, 2003, on FrontPage Magazine.