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Five myths about col­lege ad­mis­sions

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Jef­frey Lewis

When Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son showed up in Asia this month, he an­nounced that the United States would take a “new ap­proach” to North Korea. Tiller­son avoided any specifics of how he planned to get a dif­fer­ent re­sult, but he was well armed with plat­i­tudes — he spoke of decades of failed “diplo­matic and other ef­forts,” joined the Ja­panese for­eign min­is­ter in call­ing Py­ongyang’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams “to­tally un­ac­cept­able,” and urged the North’s lead­ers “to change your path.” Shortly after Tiller­son de­parted, North Korea at­tempted yet an­other mis­sile launch.

Poor Tiller­son. Some­one for­got to tell him that a new ad­min­is­tra­tion promis­ing a new ap­proach it can’t quite ar­tic­u­late is, in fact, the old ap­proach. Pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions even used the same words, call­ing North Korea’s ac­tions “un­ac­cept­able” and point­ing to a dif­fer­ent “path.” And yet, even though Pres­i­dent Barack Obama pledged to “break that pat­tern” of North Korea get­ting away with bel­liger­ent be­hav­ior, and Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush com­pared the coun­try’s dic­ta­tor­ship to a tod­dler who throws food on the floor, the sad truth is that promis­ing to break the pat­tern is part of the pat­tern, and we al­ways pick up the food. We, too, could choose a dif­fer­ent path. But we don’t.

North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams have been rac­ing ahead. After five ap­par­ently suc­cess­ful nu­clear tests and with so many ex­tended-range mis­siles at its dis­posal, few ex­perts doubt that Py­ongyang can make good on its prom­ise to arm its mis­siles with nu­clear weapons. It reg­u­larly re­hearses mis­sile launches against U.S. forces sta­tioned in Ja­pan and South Korea, is de­vel­op­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of solid­fuel mis­siles and will soon be­gin

test­ing an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing Wash­ing­ton and other ma­jor U.S. cities. A ther­monu­clear weapon can­not be far be­hind.

We have ac­cepted the de­vel­op­ment of a nu­clear-armed North Korea, hav­ing nei­ther the bravado to at­tack nor the courage to lower our ex­pec­ta­tions for a diplo­matic set­tle­ment. Of course, mil­i­tary ac­tion would have been madness, even be­fore the coun­try was armed to the teeth with nu­clear weapons. And the pol­i­tics of ne­go­ti­at­ing with Py­ongyang are ter­ri­ble. What North Korea wants is recog­ni­tion that it is a nor­mal coun­try. But it is not a nor­mal coun­try. It is a vi­cious po­lice state that abducts and ran­soms for­eign cit­i­zens, ter­ror­izes its neigh­bors with mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions, and ex­ploits ev­ery agree­ment to its ben­e­fit. The op­tics, to use a Wash­ing­ton word, of the pres­i­dent en­joy­ing a state din­ner with the ro­tund Kim Jong Un, while his peo­ple starve, are un­ap­peal­ing.

Still, even after it be­came clear in 2002 that Py­ongyang was be­gin­ning a covert ura­nium en­rich­ment pro­gram to open a sec­ond route to the bomb, it was a mis­take to end ne­go­ti­a­tions over North Korea’s mis­sile pro­grams and aban­don the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion deal that Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton had won in 1994. Al­most im­me­di­ately, Bush re­gret­ted it — and he spent the rest of his time in of­fice at­tempt­ing to rene­go­ti­ate, though six-party talks, a wa­tered-down ver­sion of the deal he had dis­carded. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, too, made half­hearted ef­forts at ne­go­ti­at­ing, in­clud­ing a com­i­cal at­tempt to strike a “Leap Day deal.” Vet­er­ans of both ad­min­is­tra­tions will tell you that they tried. But those at­tempts were in ser­vice of an un­re­al­is­tic hope for an agree­ment that was bet­ter than the one we had walked away from, even though that be­came less likely with each pass­ing year as Py­ongyang’s nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties grew.

And so, what we have cho­sen is a pol­icy of scold­ing and sanc­tions, let­ting North Korea do what­ever it wants while sound­ing very cross about it and pre­tend­ing that sanc­tions will solve the prob­lem. “Bel­liger­ent, provoca­tive be­hav­ior that threat­ens neigh­bors will be met with sig­nif­i­cant, se­ri­ous en­force­ment of sanc­tions that are in place,” Obama said. Tiller­son spoke of send­ing “very strong mes­sages to North Korea by way of the sanc­tions — sanc­tions which have al­ready been im­posed by the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions — and to ask that ev­ery­one fully im­ple­ment those sanc­tions.”

U.S. of­fi­cials have made a fetish of sanc­tions. Ask Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials how the United States se­cured the Iran nu­clear deal, for in­stance, and they will say it was the pain of sanc­tions that forced Tehran to the ta­ble. Ask any op­po­nents, and they will tell you that leav­ing sanc­tions in place longer and pro­long­ing the pain would have yielded an even bet­ter deal.

While sanc­tions re­lief played into Has­san Rouhani’s cam­paign for the Ira­nian pres­i­dency, there was an­other, more im­por­tant fac­tor in se­cur­ing the nu­clear agree­ment: The United States made sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions. The Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions had both in­sisted that Iran aban­don its ura­nium en­rich­ment pro­gram and ac­cept a limit of zero cen­trifuges. The nu­clear deal, how­ever, did not re­quire Iran to elim­i­nate its cen­trifuges but rather put in place a 10-year limit of 5,060 cen­trifuges en­rich­ing ura­nium. The re­sult is a sat­is­fac­tory agree­ment that mit­i­gates the risk of pro­lif­er­a­tion while avoid­ing a war. But for many mem­bers of Congress, that’s not good enough. They also need to hear about how the agree­ment was a hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat im­posed on Iran by our power.

Re­fus­ing to ad­mit that con­ces­sions played the cru­cial role with Iran makes it hard to see that they would be re­quired with North Korea. In­stead, we imag­ine that our sanc­tions are some­how in­suf­fi­cient or, more darkly, be­ing un­der­mined. We blame, as we so of­ten do, the Chi­nese. “North Korea is be­hav­ing very badly. They have been ‘play­ing’ the United States for years,” Trump wrote on Twit­ter. “China has done lit­tle to help!”

It’s true that the Chi­nese don’t have the same faith in the myth­i­cal power of sanc­tions. Un­til re­cently, Bei­jing’s ap­proach was to use trade to cul­ti­vate a cadre of wealthy, pow­er­ful and pro-Chi­nese North Kore­ans. Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s un­cle, was prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant fig­ure in this fac­tion — un­til Kim or­dered his goons to drag Jang out of a meet­ing, beat him and then ex­e­cute him, along with his top aides, re­port­edly with an an­ti­air­craft ma­chine gun. That was be­fore North Korean agents as­sas­si­nated Kim Jong Nam — the dic­ta­tor’s half brother who for many years had been liv­ing un­der Chi­nese pro­tec­tion in Ma­cau on an al­lowance re­port­edly pro­vided by Un­cle Jang — by rub­bing VX nerve agent on his face in a crowded Malaysian air­port.

With the pro-Chi­nese fac­tion in North Korea oblit­er­ated, China’s in­flu­ence might be use­ful at spe­cific mo­ments, such as get­ting North Korea to at­tend a meet­ing. But even a com­plete Chi­nese break wouldn’t com­pel North Korea to change course. If any­thing, it would re­in­force Py­ongyang’s de­ci­sion to look out for it­self. We shouldn’t ex­pect pres­sure from Bei­jing to fix our North Korea prob­lem.

In­stead, we should con­sider how our poli­cies need to change and what con­ces­sions we might trade for dif­fer­ent be­hav­ior from North Korea. I don’t be­lieve that Py­ongyang is go­ing to aban­don its nu­clear or mis­sile pro­grams. But we might suc­cess­fully seek a freeze in nu­clear and mis­sile test­ing that pre­vents North Korea from ad­vanc­ing those pro­grams even fur­ther. Its lead­er­ship has been clear about what it might want in ex­change for such a pause, in­clud­ing a re­duc­tion in mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, ac­cep­tance of their space launch pro­gram and an eas­ing of the regime’s iso­la­tion.

I know all the pre­dictable protests against this ap­proach. We’ll alarm our al­lies and em­bolden our en­e­mies. Those aren’t un­per­sua­sive ob­jec­tions, but they are also pre­cisely how we ended up with to­day’s pol­icy. If we ac­cept those ob­jec­tions, we are choos­ing to stay our cur­rent course, with the al­ways-new old ap­proach, the one in which we ac­cept an un­ac­cept­able nu­clear pro­gram and gen­tly chide North Korea for walk­ing with us down the path of con­fronta­tion.


Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, top, has an­nounced a “new ap­proach” to North Korea — just as other U.S. of­fi­cials have over the past two decades. Mean­while, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, above right, con­tin­ues to su­per­vise tests of weapons and rock­ets.


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