It's tricky and scary, this business of trying to get North Korea's tyrannical regime to give up its nuclear ambitions. Scarier still would be an inane go-ahead signal, the kind of thing, for instance, we got under the Clinton administration. Say about him what you will, but President Donald Trump is doing more than any predecessor to get China to do what's needed, and China is the key in all of this.
Reviewing the fumble in the Clinton years helps explain how we got where we are and what we ought to avoid. North Korea was then preparing for the production of nuclear weaponry, and President Bill Clinton, first telling the Pentagon to get ready for action if necessary, also asked the United Nations to figure out sanctions that might help avert disaster. Then came Jimmy Carter.
As Steven F. Hayward related in his 2004 book, "The Real Jimmy Carter," this ex-president insisted he be allowed to visit with dictator Kim Il Sung, and Clinton said OK despite misgivings. Carter's presentation was prepared for him. He was to threaten sanctions if North Korea did not allow U.N. inspections, hand over spent fuel rods and otherwise trash its nuke program.
Instead, he said forget the inspections and said the United States would not support U.N. sanctions. Negotiating beyond what Clinton wanted and his rights as a private citizen, Carter mainly just wanted further talks and asked North Korea to give its word about no further development of the weapons while promising U.S. help in developing nuclear energy.
North Korea was ready to trot, and, before calling the White House, Carter publicized the plan through CNN interviews. That put Clinton in a position of looking obstructionist if he did not go along with Carter, and he did after first weakly arguing for toughening things up some.
Hayward tells us Kim Il Sung died soon afterwards and that the joke in the State Department was that he died of laughter at Carter's giveaways. North Korea went right ahead with its weapons development to the point it is now bragging about having nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States.
Carter's was a pathetically common mode of negotiation that substitutes starry eyed hopefulness for practical results.
We saw the same thing in the Syrian deal on chemical weapons and varied approximations of it in the Iranian nuclear deal. An occasional harrumph is about as much as we've seen in recent years concerning North Korea, which is now being led by the murderously evil, short, fat, egomaniacal Kim Jong Un, who is threatening nuclear war as nonchalantly as if just calling for still more dessert.
A big part of the answer is China, which could erase North Korea's economy virtually overnight by cutting off trade. It had long refrained from meaningful sanctions despite constant urging. Then Trump, in his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, clearly got through to him. Trump backed off his own trade threats at a time when China itself needs all the economic help it can get. China quit importing coal from Korea in February and appears to be contemplating more such moves. A collapsed North Korea could mean major problems for China, but the point is to keep North Korea from risking collapse.
Another huge concern is that North Korea could burst into a military frenzy that, among the horrors, would devastate South Korea. Might recent U.S. military actions in Syria and Afghanistan and an increased U.S. military presence near North Korea in a week or so help instigate such an outburst? Just the opposite, some say.
Of course, the greatest fear of all is that a fanatically governed, already dangerous North Korea becomes a full-scale nuclear power. While there is no certainty in all of this and even the experts disagree, we do seem to be on the right track.
The last thing we need is a return to negotiations people joke about.