Treat North Korea as a Child Psychologist Would

ClintonKimThe world has been riveted by Bill Clinton’s dramatic rescue of two journalistic damsels from the clutches of Kim Jong Il, the diabolical and unpredictable North Korean despot. One cannot help but be relieved for the two women and their families and touched by the moving family reunions.

Yet even though the happy outcome tugs at our sentimental side, we should be asking whether the rescue was good public policy. Several hard questions arise:

1. Is the U.S. government responsible for bailing out American journalists, business people, or tourists who do stupid or risky things in dangerous and autocratic foreign countries?

Although Bill Clinton is a private citizen, he is a former president and his wife Hillary is the nation’s secretary of state and top diplomat. Therefore, any visit by Bill Clinton had the tacit approval of the Obama administration, and everyone knew it. The U.S. government has been bailing out a lot of people lately, but these journalists knew that doing a story about human trafficking in autocratic North Korea was very risky. Similarly, several hikers carelessly strayed over the Kurdistan-Iran border into Iran and have been detained. Although the families of all these people understandably want the U.S. government to do everything possible to get them back, and the U.S. government may have a responsibility to at least make diplomatic approaches to do so, should it be expected to pay ransom—in the case of the journalists, a coveted visit by an charismatic former president? And where does the government’s responsibility end? Someday, such inflated expectations of the government’s role could allow such irresponsible private hostages to drag the United States into a needless war.

2. Is it wise to reward bad behavior by any cantankerous regime, especially one with a track record like North Korea’s in which it regularly acts obnoxiously to win more favors from the United States and its neighbors?

North Korea’s bizarre leader has recently fired off missiles and conducted a second nuclear test to test the new Obama administration and enhance his bargaining position in the world’s attempt to negotiate away the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Then to win the release of the journalists, Kim specifically demanded and received a prestigious visit by Clinton. Next, he will probably be looking to receive even more in exchange for pardoning and setting the journalists free and will be irate if he doesn’t get it.

Any child psychologist will tell you that rewarding a child’s tantrum will only cause more tantrums. For some time under previous administrations, including that of George W. Bush and Clinton himself, the U.S. has been reinforcing bad behavior on the part of Kim by giving North Korea more attention and aid whenever the country misbehaves. Such pay offs only increase future bad behavior to get more goodies from the West.


3. What policy should the U.S. pursue toward North Korea?

All of this doesn’t mean we need to assume a belligerent policy toward North Korea—as advocated by neoconservatives—because backing a paranoid, nuclear-armed country into a corner is dangerous. A child psychologist would recommend rewarding good behavior, while simply ignoring bad behavior. The U.S. could offer a “grand bargain” of full diplomatic recognition for North Korea and the end of world ostracism through the termination of economic sanctions, all in exchange for elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons program. Given the historical track record of the West’s rewarding North Korean bad behavior, however, this may no longer be a viable option. Too much water has flowed under the bridge. Instead, the United States should probably just accept that North Korea will be a nuclear weapons state and focus on deterring the regime from using such weapons against the U.S.—the threat of incineration by the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal should suffice—or selling such technology abroad. Otherwise, treating Kim like a child, the U.S. should simply ignore North Korea and its belligerent posturing. Eventually, such behavior will likely attenuate.

ivan-eland.jpgDoing nothing is doing something and is much better than the ill-advised policy the United States currently has toward North Korea.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on August 12, 2009
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About Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He also has served as Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), and has testified on the military and financial aspects of NATO expansion before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on CIA oversight before the House Government Reform Committee, and on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Eland is the author of The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy, as well as The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool. He is a contributor to numerous volumes and the author of 45 in-depth studies on national security issues.

His articles have appeared in American Prospect, Arms Control Today, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Emory Law Journal, The Independent Review, Issues in Science and Technology (National Academy of Sciences), Mediterranean Quarterly, Middle East and International Review, Middle East Policy, Nexus, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Conservative, International Journal of World Peace, and Northwestern Journal of International Affairs. Dr. Eland's popular writings have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Washington Times, Providence Journal, The Hill, and Defense News. He has appeared on ABC's “World News Tonight,” NPR's “Talk of the Nation,” PBS, Fox News Channel, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, CNN, CNN “Crossfire,” CNN-fn, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Canadian TV (CTV), Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and other local, national, and international TV and radio programs.

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