Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's unprecedented meeting with Chairman Kim Jong-Il appears to signal a likely breakthrough in the often dangerously strained U.S.-North Korean relationship. Prospects are encouraging that necessary groundwork can be completed in time for President Bill Clinton to meet with Chairman Kim in Pyongyang to complete agreements constraining North Korea's ballistic missile program and normalizing North Korea's relationship with the outside world. While success cannot be assured, both sides appear committed at the highest level to seize the opportunity to take a major step in improving their relationship.
Improvements in North Korean external relations, capped by Albright's recent trip to North Korea, dramatically demonstrate how much has changed since North Korea appeared to be on the verge of launching a major nuclear weapons program seven years ago. Fortunately, ex-President Jimmy Carter's timely private mission to Pyongyang defused the situation and set the stage for the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze the North Korean nuclear program and began the long process of rolling back its nuclear weapons program. Some still question the wisdom and cost of the Agreed Framework; but, when compared with costs of a conventional war on the Korean peninsula or the threat of a North Korea armed with tens and eventually hundreds of nuclear weapons, the program has been an immense success.
As the perceived North Korean nuclear threat receded, concern grew as to the direct threat from its ballistic missile program and the impact of its export of short-range ballistic missiles to other "states of concern," including Iran, Syria, and Libya. The launch in 1998 of a Taepo Dong-1 missile that overflew Japan in an unsuccessful attempt to put a small satellite in orbit escalated this concern into a new crisis in U.S.-North Korean relations.
Whatever North Korea's intent in launching the Taepo Dong-1, it certainly got Washington's attention. Widely heralded as presaging a direct threat to the United States, it became the principal rationale for a national missile defense (NMD) program. Under intense Congressional political pressure, Clinton might well have decided this fall to authorize deployment of a limited NMD system had it not been for the test failures of the proposed system and strong international opposition.
Concurrently, in a more rational response, ex-Secretary of Defense William Perry, in a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea for the president, recommended a year ago that the United States pursue a two-path negotiating strategy toward Pyongyang. One path should be directed at limiting North Korea's ballistic missile development and export programs as well as reinforcing limits on its nuclear activities, while a second parallel path should be directed at meeting North Korea's legitimate interests in improving relations with its neighbors and the United States. This strategy has been facilitated by South Korea's new president, Kim Dae Jung, who has actively sought engagement and reconciliation with North Korea and held a successful first-ever summit with Chairman Kim in Pyongyang this summer. Moreover, during his unprecedented visit in July to Pyongyang, Russian President Vladimir Putin was told by Chairman Kim that North Korea would end its long-range ballistic missile program if other countries would launch its satellites.
In this encouraging new environment, the stage appears set for a major step forward in North Korea's accommodation of the outside world. With a forthcoming U.S. approach, one can envisage agreements that would advance the security interests of all the countries involved. North Korea stands to break out of its devastating economic and political isolation as a member of the international community. Peace and stability would be strengthened on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia in general. Constraints on North Korean ballistic missile developments would end this perceived emerging ballistic missile threat to the United States and thereby eliminate the principal current rationale for a national missile defense, costing $60 billion in the Clinton administration's apparent proposal and much more in a Bush administration's approach. It would also avoid the even more costly effects of NMD's adverse impact on U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations. To the world at large, it would be seen as a major triumph for the nuclear and missile non-proliferation regimes at the very heart of the problem.
While the final resolution of the North Korean problem is not yet in sight, the prospects for substantial progress have never been better. President Clinton should certainly go to Pyongyang if his presence will serve as the catalyst to pin down constraints on North Korean ballistic missile activities and reinforce progress on the Agreed Framework. By seizing the moment, Clinton can do the nation and his successor a great favor by removing this long-standing, complex security issue from the immediate agenda.