A decade ago, North Korea challenged the nuclear nonproliferation regime by pursuing nuclear weapons technologies in violation of its treaty commitments, and it has recently admitted that it has resumed work to produce materials for nuclear bombs. Now, as then, the most effective way to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is pragmatic diplomacy and engagement rather than confrontation and isolation.
In 1992, international inspectors discovered that North Korea was separating plutonium to build weapons in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The resulting showdown—one of the most dangerous since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—was defused only after tough negotiations led to a 1994 deal known as the Agreed Framework. For nearly 10 years, through this agreement Pyongyang has halted its plutonium-based weapons program in exchange for energy supplies. The deal has also spurred talks on other regional security issues.
Last month, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Suk Ju admitted to U.S. officials that North Korea has sought materials and technologies to produce enriched uranium. Although North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program creates new dangers, it appears to be still in its early stages. The same cannot be said if North Korea were to unfreeze its plutonium program. Consequently, as the United States seeks to address this latest crisis, it can ill-afford to “nullify” the Agreed Framework in a pique of self-righteous anger.
Without the Agreed Framework, or a revised agreement, the North would be able to recover and separate enough plutonium for approximately six weapons within six months. Just as importantly, the Agreed Framework creates a lever for intrusive inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Such inspections are necessary to verify that Pyongyang’s plutonium and uranium-enrichment programs are fully dismantled.
Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration has become hostage to its own tough line on North Korea and has been itching to scrap the Agreed Framework for months. Even though U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly knew for more than a year that the North was seeking supplies for uranium enrichment and that it was transferring missile technology to states such as Pakistan, the Bush administration failed to meet with leaders of the North Korean regime until last month.
Complicating matters, President Bush stoked North Korean fears that it might be the target of a pre-emptive strike when he named it part of an “axis of evil” and approved contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against the North in the event of war. Pyongyang has cited these policies as evidence that the United States has reneged on its 1994 pledge to pursue normalized relations and not to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea.
The Bush administration has wisely vowed to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis. However, the administration has said that North Korea must dismantle its uranium-enrichment program before the United States will engage in additional discussions. Worse still, some hardline administration officials and members of Congress are now lobbying Bush to declare the entire Agreed Framework “dead,” isolate North Korea economically, and beef up U.S. military capabilities in the region.
South Korean and Japanese leaders, on the other hand, have refused to go along. They say it is unrealistic to expect that Pyongyang will respond to non-negotiable demands and have cautioned Washington not to make a bad situation worse.
They are right. The 1994 Agreed Framework, though shaken, remains an indispensable part of achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. A precipitous termination of the Framework is ultimately self-defeating. Instead, Bush should link further energy assistance to North Korea to visible evidence that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment activities have ended. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies should continue discussions on practical proposals—such as formal nonaggression pledges—that could roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
A nuclear-armed North Korea would pose a grave security threat and would severely undermine the global nonproliferation regime, creating pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to acquire nuclear weapons. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il must understand that this scenario is unacceptable. Over the next few weeks, President Bush must carefully pursue a path that avoids such an outcome.
With North Korea, as with Iraq, achieving verifiable disarmament and avoiding a devastating war requires U.S. diplomacy and effective international weapons inspections.