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Nuclear Shockwaves: Ramifications of the North Korean Nuclear Test

Ambassador Robert Gallucci

North Korea’s nuclear test almost certainly failed to achieve its design yield. Nevertheless, it is likely to spread major shockwaves, domestically and internationally. Domestically, the finger pointing has begun, inevitably if regrettably, as a threat to the national security dramatically rises in public awareness on the eve of midterm congressional elections.

As much as we might want to deplore the reduction of a critical and complex foreign policy issue to a debating point in partisan political exchange, however, it is important to sort out the facts of what has happened in the last decade or so if we want to chart a more effective course for policy in the years ahead. The political atmosphere may not be the best for dispassionate analysis and clear thinking, but that is exactly what is needed.

North Korea began building its nuclear weapons program in the 1980s—three nuclear reactors and a plutonium-separation plant—just as it was signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). By the time President Bill Clinton was sworn into office in January 1993, Pyongyang had already separated enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons and stood in defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The president was told by his intelligence community that if the North Korean program was not stopped, the existing reactor and the other two under construction would produce, within five years or so, enough plutonium to manufacture 30 nuclear weapons annually. Following a UN Security Council resolution and proceeding in close consultation with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, the president authorized direct bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. Sixteen difficult months of intense, on-again, off-again negotiations later, the Agreed Framework was signed by North Korean and U.S. representatives.

Many of us believe that the deal was only possible because the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula was visibly enhanced while we were negotiating; because, at a critical point, the United States broke off talks to pursue a sanctions resolution in the UN Security Council; and because former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang and provided the North Koreans a face-saving way to back away from the brink at the most critical moment. Whether the Agreed Framework was the result of a well-orchestrated political-military strategy or not, it clearly provided for the immediate freezing of the entire North Korean nuclear program and its eventual dismantlement, as well as the resolution of the vexing problem of the original plutonium produced before Clinton took office. To be sure, the North Koreans “won” too, getting the immediate delivery of heavy-fuel oil and the construction of two large, proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors, financed and supplied by South Korea and Japan to replace the more dangerous reactors they were already building.

This history is pretty clear, but what happens next less so. The North Koreans clearly expected improved relations with the United States, the one benefit that could compensate them for giving up their nuclear deterrent. Some sanctions were lifted, but some remained. The envisioned liaison offices were not opened, and relations between our two countries were not normalized. At the same time, fuel oil was delivered, and construction on the power reactors was begun. North Korea complied with its obligations to freeze its entire nuclear program. Then, however, perhaps three or four years after the negotiation of the framework, North Korea began to cheat by secretly receiving components for a gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility from Pakistan. This was implicitly inconsistent with the framework. The Clinton administration planned to take up the matter with North Korea, along with concerns about its ballistic missile program and conventional force deployments, but time ran out.

So, when President George W. Bush came into office, like Clinton he was confronted with a situation in North Korea, but one that was far less pressing. The plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons was still all that was available to North Korea, while the entire plutonium production program was frozen and under IAEA inspection, and the other elements of the framework were on track. The problem was that of the secret North Korean effort to acquire the components for a gas-centrifuge plant. If completed, the plant could someday produce material for a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration’s approach to the problem quickly took shape four years ago when it confronted Pyongyang with the knowledge of its secret program and the demand that Pyongyang give it up before any further negotiations could take place. When North Korea refused, Washington abandoned the Agreed Framework, prompting Pyongyang to do likewise, kicking inspectors out, withdrawing from the NPT, starting up the reactor, separating plutonium, and announcing the acquisition of a deterrent.

During the intervening years, Pyongyang has pressed for bilateral talks with Washington, while the administration has insisted on six-party talks that include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. The talks began in 2003, but little progress was made until last year when the outlines of a new framework were agreed, just as the Department of the Treasury rang alarm bells regarding a bank in Macau it accused of assisting North Korean counterfeiting activities. This prompted the North Koreans to refuse to meet in the six-party mode so long as it was an object of “sanctions.”

What are we to make of this brief history? It is difficult to see how the current situation can be said to have resulted from the Clinton policy of engagement. One could argue, of course, that Clinton failed to solve the North Korean nuclear problem because he left office with the North Koreans secretly acquiring components for gas-centrifuge machines. Although that is true, it begs the question of how proliferation problems can ever be completely resolved. The secret of the bomb is out, and nuclear physicists and engineers can be recruited domestically or internationally. Nuclear weapons development activity that can be stopped can always be restarted. If intentions change, so can capabilities.

At the same time, we might ask what the Bush administration’s policy, which has been far more resistant to negotiating than that of the Clinton administration, has gained the United States. Although we have successfully avoided “rewarding” North Korea with our presence in bilateral talks, Pyongyang has tested a series of ballistic missiles, separated enough plutonium for about eight additional nuclear weapons, and conducted one nuclear test explosion. The Bush administration’s policy may be righteous, but it has failed to secure the nation’s interest.

The international consequences of the latest North Korean provocation have already been felt in domestic political dialogue in Seoul and Tokyo. Not soon but eventually, there will be serious discussion of the virtue of continued nuclear abstinence. Second, North Korea undoubtedly learned something from its test, no matter its actual design yield, just as it learned something from its failed Taepo Dong-2 missile test in July. So, Pyongyang is one step closer to mating nuclear weapons to an extended-range ballistic missile capable of hitting Tokyo today and Los Angeles tomorrow. Most ominously of all, as we and our friends in the UN Security Council pass the toughest sanctions resolutions we can—as we must at least to set an example for others—we push the North Koreans ever closer to crossing the ultimate redline: selling fissile material to al Qaeda. That poses a threat against which our country has no real defense and no effective deterrent. It is the most serious threat to our national security today.

There are now and have always been only three options available to deal with the North Korean problem: military force, sanctions, and negotiation. Although the military option was available but unappealing a dozen years ago, it is barely so today. Limited targets, little reserve force to deal with retaliation, and an ally in Seoul hostile to military action argue against this option. Sanctions, always limited by what China will permit and South Korea will enforce, will not force North Korean compliance. At best, they force North Korea to the negotiating table; at worst, they will amount to a policy of containment or acceptance of a growing North Korean nuclear weapons program. This poses unacceptable risks to our nation’s security. That leaves genuine negotiation in which we expect to get what we need and concede to Pyongyang at least some of what it wants. This is by far the best course, and we had better get on with it.

What would negotiations look like? The modality, administration protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is not important. If there are six-party talks, the real negotiations will be done bilaterally anyway between U.S. and North Korean diplomats. If the talks are bilateral, Washington will do again what it did a dozen years ago during the framework negotiations, keeping Beijing and Moscow informed and consulting Seoul and Tokyo on a daily basis. Any outcomes that the United States would want to have implemented multilaterally could be accomplished in either negotiating modality.

The real questions about a negotiation with North Korea are substantive. First, will Pyongyang truly give up and dismantle its nuclear weapons program, including old and newly separated plutonium, the operating research reactor and other gas-graphite reactors under construction, its plutonium-separation facility, and its gas-centrifuge and associated uranium-enrichment facilities?

This question goes to the underlying issue of North Korea’s purpose in its nuclear weapons program. If it is truly defensive, to have a deterrent to dissuade the United States from attempting to inflict regime change, then it will give it up only if convinced that the threat has been removed. It would then fall to Washington to make credible its willingness to tolerate a North Korea that forsakes nuclear weapons but clings to ballistic missiles, forward-deployed conventional forces, and a totalitarian regime guilty of most horrendous human rights violations against its own people. It is not at all clear that the Bush administration is willing to do that.

That is the fundamental question, but a secondary issue has arisen in the talks last year that threatens to derail any deal if not addressed successfully. This is the question of whether Washington and its allies in Tokyo and Seoul are again willing to offer Pyongyang light-water nuclear power reactors as a part of the package of inducements, along with security assurances, removal of sanctions, and perhaps other economic concessions.

Those reactors were important to Pyongyang in 1994, and they seem to have renewed importance during negotiations last year. Many in Congress and elsewhere are opposed to providing these reactors or, more accurately, supporting the provision of them by South Korea and Japan, presumably because light-water reactors also produce plutonium. For a variety of technical reasons, however, we concluded in 1994 and should again, if we have the opportunity, that light-water reactors are substantially more proliferation resistant than the gas-graphite reactors and thus could be part of a package of incentives so long as South Korea and Japan are prepared to finance and build them.

In the end, the question is less whether North Korea is prepared to make a deal than it is whether the United States has the stomach for another negotiation and another framework arrangement, knowing that Pyongyang cheated on the last one. Those tempted to answer in the negative should be required to describe a better, plausible alternative to negotiation.

Ambassador Robert Gallucci is dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. In 1998, he was appointed the Department of State’s special envoy to deal with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. He helped oversee the disarmament of Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War as the deputy executive chairman of the UN Special Commission and subsequently helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.