(ADVISORY: AS OF THE TIME OF THIS FILING, U.S. OFFICIALS HAVE YET TO OFFICIALLY CONFIRM THE NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR TESTS. THE WHITE HOUSE IS EXPECTED TO CONFIRM LATER TONIGHT OR TOMORROW.)
Ned Lamont, the liberal hero who vanquished Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in August, declared a few months ago that our nation is stronger when we "negotiate with our enemies." He thus neatly summarized post-9/11 Democratic foreign-policy thought in four words. The criminal regime of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il has now issued a rejoinder to this foreign-policy axiom that measured 4.2 on the Richter scale.
The apparent North Korean nuclear test — as yet unconfirmed— punctuates more than a decade's worth of deal-making, confidence-building, cajoling and negotiating with a regime that has responded to it all only by enhancing its rogue status. The risible six-party talks, an effort by the U.S. and neighboring nations to reason with Kim Jong Il, had been in abeyance since the North walked away from them this year. But Democrats are attacking the Bush administration for not talking with the North directly, as if it is the shape of the negotiating table, rather than the nature of the North Korea regime, that has been the problem.
The Clinton administration dealt directly with the North, producing the Agreed Framework, a sham that the North Koreans began cheating on, in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, "as the ink was drying." The North agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors and fuel deliveries. Immediately, however, it set up a secret uranium-enrichment program and obstructed inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency. When the U.S. called the North on it in 2002, the North confessed, expelled IAEA inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and accelerated its nuclear quest.
Which is not to say that the Bush administration has performed well. It has repeatedly said things like "we are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea." This is an empty threat that serves only to erode U.S. credibility and convince other rogues — most importantly, Iran — that they can get away with things we warn against in the strongest possible terms. North Korea is nuclear, and we are indeed going to live with it for now, because there is no viable military option.
The administration's six-party talks, meanwhile, made sense in theory as a way to bring North Korea's most influential neighbors into any deal-making, but the neighbors have proven unreliable. As North Korea has become ever more aggressive, the South has become ever more supine. China is the North's economic lifeline and at any point in the past decade could have helped bring Kim Jong Il to heel. But Beijing fears a North Korean collapse that might send desperate refugees fleeing into China, and prefers a divided Korean peninsula to one that is united, democratic and allied with the United States.
In the case of North Korea, we have talked to our enemy, and it only has made him stronger. It's time for action.