Letter: Despots of a different color

Last week, Jacob Eisler wrote an editorial, “Inconsistent Foreign Policy,” in which he deemed the different approaches the United States is adopting with respect to Iraq and North Korea “farcical.” Eisler wrote that while both North Korea and Iraq have not cooperated with weapons inspectors, “one is being placated, and the other, eradicated.”He criticized what he saw as an apparent double standard in the United States’ policies toward the two members of the “axis of evil” and suggested that the stated mission to remove Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is simply a “veneer” to hide “self-interested motives” that are “either invidious or simply wrong.”

Eisler never explicitly stated what those motives might be, but we believe that he is referring to the popular argument that we are in Iraq to gain control of its vast oil fields.

Contrary to Eisler’s assessment, the Iraqi and North Korean dilemmas are far from identical. True, both countries have shown themselves to be untrustworthy and duplicitous with regard to their WMD programs. Both have expressed loathing for the United States, and both are ruthless dictatorships.

However, the commonalities end there. Iraq has time and again shown a willingness to violate UN Security Council resolutions. American and Iraqi forces trade fire on an almost daily basis in the no-fly zone, and Saddam Hussein has shown a proclivity for deception and calculated brinkmanship. Even with the weight of the international community brought to bear upon his despicable actions towards the Kurdish minorities in the north, his expansionist tactics in Kuwait, and his authoritarian consolidation of power in Iraq, Hussein has remained undeterred. He is a master at escalating tensions and pulling back when conflict seems inevitable. The argument is clear that productive diplomacy has failed.

In contrast, the U.S. can still count diplomacy among its effective tools in its relations with North Korea. Kim Jong-Il has been frank and explicit about his intentions, going so far as to call for “knee-to-knee” talks with President Bush, an offer that Washington has thus far refused. Why has Kim Jong-Il restarted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program? The primary reason, we believe, is not to launch a war, much less a nuclear war. Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric, while troubling, is simply meant to strong-arm the U.S. into negotiations. Kim is a ruthless and despicable autocrat, but he is not suicidal.

Rather, he is using one of the few bargaining chips in his possession to ensure that the world will listen to his concerns. Kim knows that he leads one of the most backward countries in the world, a fact undoubtedly made more painful by the fact that North Korea is ringed by economically prosperous countries. Unlike Hussein, Kim has shown interest in reforming North Korea’s economy, as evidenced by a low-profile visit to Shanghai in January 2001 when he toured the Shanghai Stock Exchange, a Buick plant and a joint-venture NEC semiconductor plant. Additionally, Kim has attempted to experiment with a Chinese-style special economic zone (SEZ) in the Rajin-Songbon region. Although that project appears to have been abandoned, there are rumors that other SEZs may be on the horizon.

Why, then, is this dance with death in Kim’s rational self-interest? None of this development can happen without a substantial decrease in North Korea’s defense spending, which constitutes the bulk of its expenditures. At a campus lecture last week, Donald Gregg, a former ambassador to South Korea who met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang last month, elucidated the tension between Kim Jong-Il and the military establishment.

The generals fear that opening up North Korea will reduce their considerable influence. One solution to placate them would be exactly what Pyongyang is calling for now: a non-aggression pact with the United States. Indeed, in the past Pyongyang has not even demanded a formal treaty, asking simply for a verbal security assurance. Once realized, North Korea could begin shifting 300,000 of her 1.1 million soldiers to factory work in SEZs. According to John Burton in the Financial Times of January 13th, Pyongyang has also suggested that U.S. diplomatic recognition would also invite foreign investment and possibly access to IMF and Asian Development Bank funds.

Eisler began his editorial with a noble effort: trying to show a discrepancy between American reactions to substantively similar situations. However, he overlooked the fact that Iraq and North Korea are substantively different, and therefore warrant different treatment by the Bush administration. Both nations pose a potentially serious threat to the United States and her interests, and both crises cry out for resolution and action. Diplomacy has proven ineffective in Iraq, but in North Korea, the opportunities for diplomatic engagement are written on the wall. We can only hope that the Bush administration realizes these differences and the unique opportunities for peaceful conflict resolution that they present.

Jonathan Chow ’03 and Joseph Gallagher ’03