Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea

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Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea

By Leon V. Sigal
Princeton University Press, 1998
321 pp. $29.95
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Written by an academic political scientist and former editorial writer for The New York Times, this is a sobering tale describing how close the United States came to war with North Korea in 1994 before Jimmy Carter's visit to Pyongyang broke the ice and laid the groundwork for Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci's extraordinary diplomatic work. The book explores the series of intelligence and policy failures that prevented the U.S. government from comprehending that North Korea was seeking accommodation as early as 1991. Most senior Bush administration officials incorrectly believed that nuclear diplomacy with North Korea could not succeed, and hostility in Congress to dealing with North Korea reinforced their reluctance to try. The Clinton administration compounded these failures by initially embracing ends that could not be attained and eschewing deal- making. Finally, the administration had what one State Department official called a "gaping void at the top of the bureaucracy": there was no one in charge of policy toward North Korea. As a result, American diplomatic strategy was one of drift punctuated by spasms of zigzagging. This failure highlights a critical weakness: the inability of the United States to develop a balance of carrots and sticks for adversaries who are extremely unpopular domestically, who are easily demonized, and with whom it has no diplomatic relations. One shortcoming of the book is that it completely overlooks the difficulties of dealing with Pyongyang, an isolated, totalitarian, and paranoid Stalinist regime whose messages were easy to misread.