Sun, Aug 09, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Rapprochements with rogue states: New tack on North Korea

By Yoon Young-kwan

In his State of the Union address to the US Congress in 2002, then-US president George W. Bush famously described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” However, in the years since, the US has not treated each in the same way. The differences are highly instructive.

Bush and his hardline advisers believed that only force or “regime change” would stop these “rogue” states’ terrorism or their programs to acquire “weapons of mass destruction.” So, in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, resulting in a state of near-constant civil war for more than a decade; an ineffectual central government in Baghdad; and now the rise of the Islamic State.

In Iran, then-president Mohammad Khatami, a political moderate, offered what might have been a reasonable deal to curb the country’s nuclear program. However, Bush and his team preferred to pressure Tehran with sanctions and military threats, and any hope for a negotiated solution vanished when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded Khatami in 2005. It was only when another moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, took office in 2013 that hope for a negotiated solution could be revived.


Fortunately, US President Barack Obama has not missed the opportunities that were presented to him. Indeed, the recent agreement with Iran, coming after diplomatic breakthroughs with Myanmar and Cuba, should make those who speak of an the US in decline think again.

But what of North Korea, the last member of that notorious axis? For the Bush administration, the Geneva Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by North Korea and the US with the aim of freezing the North’s nuclear activity and gradually decommissioning its graphite-moderated reactors, was an act of appeasement by the “naive” administration of then-US president Bill Clinton. Bush’s administration preferred a harder line, using the so-called six-party talks, began in 2003 and involving the US, China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea, to act almost as a pressure-cooker. Though not publicly declared, it was widely believed that key US policymakers wanted regime change.

However, while Bush maintained the US’ hard line toward Iran, in 2006 he changed tack in dealing with North Korea and began seeking a deal — doubtless influenced by the North’s first nuclear test, carried out in October of that year. An eventual agreement, reached in the fifth round of the six-party talks in February 2007, could not be implemented because of Pyongyang’s refusal to agree on a verification protocol.

When Obama entered office in January 2009 and offered to “extend a hand” to Bush’s rogue states, optimists hoped for the negotiated denuclearization of North Korea. Sadly, North Korea has betrayed the US at least three times since then: It conducted a second nuclear test in May 2009; launched a satellite in April 2012 in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874; and carried out a third nuclear test in February 2013. Given the North Korean regime’s frequent threats to turn US targets, from Hawaii to Washington, into “a sea of fire,” optimism is hard to sustain.

What should experience with the “axis of evil” trio since 2002 tell US policymakers? First, aiming for “policy change” makes more sense than striving for regime change. The Bush administration changed the regime in Iraq, but at a monumental cost that is still being paid. In contrast, Obama’s goal concerning Iran was modest and focused on denuclearization. It has borne fruit.

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