The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, August 06, 2009


We're all pleased that months of negotiations and ex-President Bill Clinton’s visit to North Korea lead to the extrication of reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee from a 12 year trumped up prison sentence. In the afterglow, it’s not the least bit surprising that proponents of negotiation-at-all-costs trumpet this minor success (for all but the reporter's families) as a argument for continuing negotiations.

Typical is the argument of Joseph Cirincione who suggests:
President Clinton did more than free two unjustly jailed journalists. He jump-started the successful diplomacy he had begun 15 years earlier.

He goes on to make the de rigueur argument that Clinton’s best effort during the late 1980s was ruined by George W. Bush (and fails to mention that promises extracted of the NoKos by the great stateswoman Madeline Albrecht were abrogated within months of their signing). Cirincione goes on to state:
With this success, Bill Clinton has demonstrated what effective diplomacy looks like. He has shown the former Bush officials what they should have done years ago. He may have convinced senior White House strategists that diplomacy is a political winner, paying dividends across issue areas.

Two power players, Obama and Clinton, have together taken a giant step forward, advancing the agenda Clinton began 15 years ago. America is the better for it.

But NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, certainly no right-wing extremist and long-time proponent of negotiations with the NoKos, thinks that it may be time to consider sticks, rather than carrots:
There are new indications that North Korea may be transferring nuclear weapons technology to Myanmar, the dictatorship also known as Burma, and that it earlier supplied a reactor to Syria. For many years, based on five visits to North Korea and its border areas, I’ve argued for an “engagement” approach toward Pyongyang, but now I’ve reluctantly concluded that we need more sticks.

Burmese defectors have provided detailed accounts of a North Korean reactor, perhaps a mirror of the one provided to Syria, built inside a mountain deep in Myanmar. The reports, first aired in The Sydney Morning Herald this month, come from Desmond Ball, a respected Asia scholar, and Phil Thornton, a journalist with expertise on Myanmar, and there has been other fragmentary intelligence to back them up.

If the defectors’ accounts are true, the reactor “could be capable of being operational and producing a bomb a year, every year, after 2014,” Mr. Ball and Mr. Thornton wrote.

Back channel negotiations may still have some merit, but it’s very important that the Obama administration not be lulled into the rope-a-dope diplomatic strategy that is the stock in trade of countries like North Korea and Iran. Talk, empty promises, violation of the promises, more talk, more promises, but no real progress. That’s diplomatic rope-a-dope, all the while allowing further development of weapons of mass destruction and placing those weapons in the hands of unstable regimes.

Kristof concludes:
There are no good options here, and a grass-roots revolution is almost impossible. North Koreans, even those in China who despise the regime, overwhelmingly agree that most ordinary North Koreans swallow the propaganda. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s approval rating in his country may well be higher than President Obama’s is in the United States.

Despite the brave rebellion of some Iranians, I would submit that the same holds for Iran. Barack Obama must come to understand that nuanced treatment of rouge regimes has its limits and, as Kristof admits, it’s sometimes necessary to use sticks as well as carrots.

If President Obama chooses passivity, it’s more than likely that the NoKos and the Iranians will soon have sticks of their own. Time is not on our side.