When on the verge of dealing with one of the leaders of the "axis of evil," the last thing we need is for one of the other members to start shooting up his neighborhood. Yet that is the possibility we face with Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il. The North Korean dictator may use a US invasion of Iraq as his cue to commence hostilities in Asia. We need to coax him out of doing so, at least until Saddam Hussein is taken care of.
The bellicose actions and inflammatory rhetoric flowing from North Korea on an almost daily basis constitute one of the most serious crises of the post-WWII era. North Korea's long-standing objective is to retake the South. Will it consider a US-led war in Iraq the opportune time to do so, while much of our military is diverted? Or perhaps it will take some other hostile action, like shooting down a US surveillance plane or reprocessing spent fuel rods at a nuclear facility.
The standoff persists because North Korea wants bilateral negotiations, while the US wants multilateral negotiations. The Bush administration is ruling out the former because, according to Colin Powell in a Fox News Sunday, March 8 interview, "We can't fall into that trap again of paying them off to stop what they're doing, only to discover that they're doing it again at a later time." The administration also does not want to appear to reward North Korea by acceding to bilateral talks.
But the consequences of a war breaking out in Korea are far worse than the consequences of appearing to concede to North Korean demands. No one can pinpoint the likelihood of Kim Jong Il starting a war while we are engaged in Iraq, but even if the likelihood is low, we cannot take the chance of letting the standoff continue.
A bilateral dialogue in no way obligates us to enter into any agreement with North Korea. We need not concede anything, only to see that country renege later on. What is needed at this moment is a "GATT" - a general agreement to talk and talk. Deliberately draw out the discussions, utilizing whatever smooth-talking skills we can muster, to keep Kim Jong Il focused on conversing and not on shooting.
Professional police negotiators do this sort of thing all the time. They coax, cajole, and calm the bad guy in order to buy time until more forces can be better positioned to get him to put down his weapon.
Once the Iraq crisis is resolved, we obviously will be freer to expand our options regarding North Korea. If we manage to cool the North Korea crisis during a war with Iraq, and afterward the crisis resumes, at least our military will be in a better position to cope with any outbreak of hostilities in Korea.
Assuming we are successful in Iraq and North Korea is kept at bay, the big challenge will be to get rid of its nuclear weapons without sparking a full-scale war. My hat's off to anyone who could pull this off through diplomacy, without subjecting us to broken agreements and nuclear blackmail again.
Iraq is a cakewalk compared with North Korea. If the latter were not so precariously close to Seoul, and if it did not have nuclear weapons yet, then solutions would be easier to come by.
One option is a surgical strike on the country's nuclear facilities. But the risk of a retaliatory missile barrage on Seoul would be enormous. This option would be more viable if there were a good anti-missile defense system in place. The US Air Force is working on such a defense using high-energy lasers, which could be used on smaller conventional missiles like Scuds, in addition to intercontinental ballistic missiles. But this is many years away, assuming it would ever work at all.
Of course, if North Korea attempts to fulfill its long-held goal of unifying the Korean peninsula under Communist rule just as we invade Iraq, then the North Korean nuclear problem probably would get solved. But it could come at the cost of the lives of millions of Koreans and thousands of American servicemen and women. Let us not assume that the North Korean military will behave itself while we are preoccupied in Iraq. Open a dialogue now.