North Korea: The War Game

Dealing with North Korea could make Iraq look like child's play—and the longer we wait, the harder it will get. That's the message of a Pentagon-style war game involving some of this country's most prominent foreign-policy strategists

"This is precisely the discussion that needs to take place," David Kay said as the session ended. "And it is very clear why the president of the United States has to be present at the discussion. Otherwise we have an absolute stalemate. We don't win on a stalemate in this case. And so you've got to decide what risk you're willing to run now to avoid a greater risk later on. And only the president can make that decision."

During the next few weeks I had conversations with all the members of the Principals Committee. What had they taken away from the war game? Despite the disputatiousness of the proceedings, was there any consensus about the lessons that could be drawn from the exercise?

There was. The first lesson was no surprise: This is not a situation that is going to get better with time. "Anyone who walks through the North Korea crisis comes through absolutely convinced that it is only going to get worse," David Kay told me. He came away from the exercise convinced of the situation's urgency—and convinced that the United States has wasted several years, effectively doing nothing while it hoped the regime would collapse. Kay believes that the administration's reluctance to engage the matter diplomatically is dangerous. And that was the second lesson at least three of the principals agreed on: We need—soon—to make a serious attempt at negotiating. "The Bush administration believes that the North Koreans cannot be relied upon to abide by international agreements," Kay said. "They also believe there are groups so bad that you harm yourself by talking to them. North Korea is a horrible regime—in human-rights terms, one of the worst on earth. But talking to them in no way compromises our moral beliefs." We need to take another crack at direct negotiation before we go the military route, he said.

For Jessica Mathews, this second lesson was the most important. She felt that the administration was hurting itself by insisting on participating only in multilateral talks, as opposed to direct negotiations with North Korea. "There's nothing in our national-security interest that is better served by multilateral versus bilateral talks. That's a shape-of-the-table issue. If we wanted to say, 'Okay, they want to have bilateral talks? Fine. We'll have a bilateral subcommittee within the six-party talks'—how long would that take to figure out? Half an hour." She added, "It's kind of odd that this administration, of all administrations, wants to outsource this policy issue to the Chinese."

A third lesson was that the transfer of nuclear material to terrorists is the biggest danger we face. General McInerney agreed with that, and with the idea that North Korea was an urgent matter (though he thought Iran was more pressing). But he disagreed on the importance of pursuing talks. In his view, people like Mathews and Gallucci, who are willing to pursue bilateral negotiations, are being naive. He also believes that it's important for Kim Jong Il to know what our military capabilities are, and to know we are willing to use them—which is why he believes that the "bleeding hearts" who say "Oh, God, we couldn't do this" about a war with North Korea (because of the threat to Seoul) interfere with our deterrent message to Kim. Kim needs to know that if he sells nuclear technology to terrorists, "he will get nuclear weapons on North Korea."

Ken Adelman seemed less willing than any of the other participants to contemplate pre-emptive war with Pyongyang. But he remained unwilling to put much stock in negotiations of any kind, and continued to rest his hopes on the Chinese. He thought the North Korean situation was so intractable that it needed an unconventional approach to shake it loose; the analogy he used was the way Ronald Reagan shook loose the arms-control debate in the 1980s by conceiving of "Star Wars" missile defense. For Adelman the most surprising thing about the war game was that the debate didn't come down to a typical right-left divide. He noted in particular that he had been surprised to find himself to the left of Robert Gallucci in terms of willingness to use force.

Gallucci, for his part, said he was "surprised at how surprised Adelman was that we—those of us who favor negotiation—could end up in a position where we would favor the use of military force." Gallucci was emphatic that we urgently have to try to negotiate, as a prelude to possible military action, and was frustrated that the Bush administration and some of the war-game principals were unwilling to recognize that. To put his frustration in context, he told me a story.

"When I came back with the Agreed Framework deal and tried to sell it," he said, "I ran into the same people sitting around that table—the general to my right, Ken across from me. They hated the idea of trying to solve this problem with a negotiation.

"And I said, 'What's your—pardon me—your fucking plan, then, if you don't like this?'

"'We don't like—'

"I said, 'Don't tell me what you don't like! Tell me how you're going to stop the North Korean nuclear program.'

"'But we wouldn't do it this way—'

"'Stop! What are you going to do?'

"I could never get a goddamn answer. What I got was 'We wouldn't negotiate.'"

I pointed out that the North Koreans had—as McInerney emphasized—cheated on the 1994 agreement. "Excuse me," Gallucci said, "the Soviets cheated on virtually every deal we ever made with them, but we were still better off with the deal than without it."

To people who say that negotiating with the North Koreans rewards bad behavior, Gallucci says, "Listen, I'm not interested in teaching other people lessons. I'm interested in the national security of the United States. If that's what you're interested in, are you better off with this deal or without it? You tell me what you're going to do without the deal, and I'll compare that with the deal."

He was adamant that we were better off under the Agreed Framework—cheating and all—than we are now. "When the Clinton folks went out of office, the North Koreans only had the plutonium they had separated in the previous Bush administration. Now they've got a whole lot more. What did all this 'tough' shit give us? It gave us a much more capable North Korea. Terrific!"

For his part, Sam Gardiner came away with one overriding message. "I left the game with a firm conviction that the United States is focusing on the wrong problem," he told me. "Iran is down the road. Korea is now, and growing. We can't wait to deal with Korea." The president needs to engage the North Korean question for a very simple reason: "The military situation on the peninsula," he said, "is not under control."

Scott Stossel is an Atlantic senior editor and the author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver (2004).
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Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and the award-winning Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent ShriverMore

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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