The Bush administration has been at times dangerously ambiguous in its policy toward North Korea. With a second round of six-party talks likely for early 2004 and North Korea's nuclear program chugging along, the upcoming debate on Capitol Hill over a new bill, the North Korea Freedom Act, may well be pivotal in pushing U.S. policy toward either engagement or increased confrontation. The stakes are huge: Even if the current conflict doesn't escalate into a shooting war, failure to bar North Korea from the nuclear club could set a poor precedent for nonproliferation and seriously damage the president's prospects for re-election.
This fall, after two years of alternately ignoring and threatening North Korea, the Bush administration seemed to change course. Anticipating election-year criticism, the administration announced that it was ready to talk, even to extend a multilateral pledge not to invade or attack, in exchange for North Korea's ending of its nuclear program. U.S. negotiators promised flexibility and pragmatism for the next round of talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia. In addition, just in time for Christmas, the U.S. government agreed to release 60,000 tons of food aid to a country still in the throes of a food crisis.
But the administration hasn't entirely abandoned regime change as a goal. Take, for instance, its response to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn.). A hawk on the House Armed Services Committee, Weldon made resolving the nuclear crisis a personal mission in 2003. He visited Pyongyang last May and planned to return with a bipartisan delegation in October. The Bush administration, citing an alleged national-security breach that took place during the May trip, canceled the second trip at the last moment. Weldon was furious. He fired off a letter to the president pointing out that the supposed security breach -- a report on U.S.-Russian relations he provided North Korean authorities in May -- was in fact an unclassified document readily available on the Web. "The treatment of the delegation by your national security team has been offensive and arrogant," the letter read, further noting that such a prohibition of congressional travel was unprecedented. A private delegation, including former government official Jack Pritchard, subsequently went to Pyongyang, but the State Department was cool to the initiative.
Meanwhile, in mid-December, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly told State Department negotiators trying to work out a deal with North Korea, "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it" -- an allusion to the country's place in the dwindling "axis of evil." Although North Korea has made several offers, including one in early January to freeze all of its nuclear facilities in exchange for various economic incentives, the administration has failed to reciprocate.
Unhappy with the administration's mixed messages, some members of Congress have sought to bolster the hard-line position. The North Korea Freedom Act, introduced into the House and Senate in late 2003, has bipartisan backing and the support of a coalition of conservative groups, including Concerned Women for America and the Defense Forum Foundation. The act calls not only for North Korea to end its nuclear threat but throws a number of other issues into the mix. For instance, the bill would make it easier for North Koreans -- particularly those with knowledge of Pyongyang's weapons programs -- to enter the United States. It would also increase the information flow into North Korea by providing nearly $44 million to smuggle in radios. According to the logic of these provisions, more information about the outside world will lead to more emigration and stimulate demands for dramatic change from within. "The goals of the bill are to encourage democracy and freedom among the North Korean people," says Brian Hart, communications director for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), co-sponsor of the Senate version along with Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "Whether that happens from within or from regime change, neither is the goal of the bill, but either would be welcome."
Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, adds, "Either the regime comes around or it won't last." If the North Korean leaders want to stay in power, "[t]hey will have to make some serious changes, such as stop murdering and killing their own people."
The inspiration behind the new bill is the activism of Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who worked in North Korea in 1999 and 2000 but now champions its collapse. Vollertsen frequently cites the example of the outflow of East Germans in 1989 that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime. In hopes of replicating that model, the doctor orchestrated a series of highly visible events, beginning in 2002, in which North Korean refugees stormed foreign embassies in Beijing. This strategy largely backfired, as China responded by rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of refugees back to North Korea. Vollertsen and his supporters now hope that the U.S. Congress can accomplish what embassy rushes did not.
The new bill also comes on the heels of a well-publicized campaign on Capitol Hill to shine a spotlight on North Korea's human-rights abuses. "The key thing about the bill from the policy point of view is to bring up the human-rights issue, which the United States has been ignoring," says Suzanne Scholte of the Defense Forum Foundation, which has sponsored several congressional hearings, including one with top-level North Korean defector Hwang Jong Yop.
As detailed in an October report by former Amnesty International Director David Hawk, which integrates a number of previously disparate defector accounts, North Korea maintains an extensive prison labor camp system with as many as 200,000 political detainees. The country's extensive surveillance system has effectively prevented the emergence of any organized political dissent. Without voice and in many cases without food, many North Koreans have simply escaped the country. In addition to addressing refugee issues, the North Korea Freedom Act would authorize $4 million for organizations promoting human rights in North Korea -- the very organizations that are rallying support for the bill in conservative circles and among Korean American churches.
There are good reasons to believe, however, that this multipronged strategy will not work. While large refugee outflows certainly contributed to the collapse of communism in East Germany, similar migrations only strengthened regimes in Cuba and Vietnam because the departing boats contained those most opposed to government policies. Encouraging more North Korean migrants in the absence of mechanisms in China to handle the flow would raise expectations without fulfilling them.
China, meanwhile, has been extremely reluctant to accord refugee status to North Koreans for fear of offending its erstwhile ally and inviting an unstoppable migration. Although emphasizing the critical importance of addressing both human rights and North Korean refugees, Joel Charney of Refugees International argues that "a more practical way of approaching this, given the Chinese attitude, would be to convince China to stop arresting and deporting the North Korean refugees. If they were simply left alone by the Chinese authorities, in a quiet way, that could be a safety valve, rather than a high-profile effort that would attract more people to cross the border."
In addition, a provision in the bill lays out conditions for North Korea to meet before achieving its two key objectives, the elimination of U.S. trade sanctions and diplomatic recognition. But so strict are these conditions -- they include, for example, such high standards of transparency and democracy that even U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria are hard-pressed to meet them -- that one might reasonably suspect that the sponsors want North Korea to fail and thus become further isolated. Linking human rights with the nuclear issue, meanwhile, may ensure that neither issue is adequately addressed in the upcoming talks. And even if the legislation ultimately did lead to regime change, such an outcome might not be desirable: The absence of any credible alternative to the government of Kim Jong-Il would create a dangerous power vacuum in North Korea, trigger a potential humanitarian crisis and leave thousands of dangerous weapons in limbo.
The North Korea Freedom Act will be taken up in Congress early this year. Groups backing the bill are planning a march on Washington in March to rally support. In an election year, members of Congress will feel pressure to take a stand on North Korea, but some are uncomfortable with the current bill. There is talk in Washington of a rival variant that addresses the substantive issues -- North Korea's nuclear program, refugees, and human-rights and humanitarian issues -- without goading North Korea into boycotting negotiations. The Bush administration, not eager to be blamed for allowing North Korea to go nuclear, has yet to resolve its internal conflict over strategy between pragmatists and hard-liners. Congress' ability to bring clarity to this debate will soon be tested.