"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
North Korea Is No Iraq: Pyongyang's Negotiating Strategy

Leon V. Sigal

The revelation that North Korea is buying equipment useful for enriching uranium has led many in Washington to conclude that North Korea, like Iraq, is again making nuclear weapons and that the appropriate response is to punish it for brazenly breaking its commitments. Both the assessment and the policy that flows from it are wrong.

North Korea is no Iraq. It wants to improve relations with the United States and says it is ready to give up its nuclear, missile, and other weapons programs in return.

Pyongyang’s declared willingness to satisfy all U.S. security concerns is worth probing in direct talks. More coercive alternatives—economic sanctions and military force—are not viable without allied support. Yet, the Bush administration, long aware of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile activities, has shown little interest in negotiating.

Recognizing that, both Japan and South Korea have refused to confront North Korea and instead have moved to engage it. Hard-line unilateralists in the Bush administration and Congress oppose such engagement. As they continue to get their way, they are putting the United States on a collision course with its allies, undermining political support for the alliance in South Korea and Japan and jeopardizing the U.S. troop presence in both countries.

The United States rightly wants to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear arms; prevent it from developing, testing, deploying and selling any more ballistic missiles; get rid of its biological and chemical weapons; and assure that, whatever happens internally in North Korea, the artillery Pyongyang has emplaced within range of Seoul is never fired in anger.

To achieve its aims, Washington has to understand that Pyongyang is seeking an end to its hostile relationship with the United States. When Washington fails to reciprocate, Pyongyang retaliates by breaking its pledges in a desperate effort to get Washington to cooperate.

Tit-for-Tat to End Enmity

In the late 1980s, then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung decided he had no better way to provide for his country’s security than to end its lifelong enmity with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. He reached out to all three, but in the early 1990s, the first Bush administration, determined to put a stop to Pyongyang’s nuclear arming before easing its isolation, worked to block closer South Korean and Japanese ties with the North. Concluding that Washington held the key to open doors to Seoul and Tokyo, Pyongyang engaged seriously with Seoul and Tokyo in the ensuing decade only when it was convinced Washington was cooperating.

Pyongyang also decided to trade in its nuclear arms program in return for an end to enmity. At the same time, it kept its nuclear option open as leverage on Washington to live up to its end of the bargain—initially by delaying international inspections to determine how much plutonium it reprocessed before 1992.

That trade became the basis of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby the North agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear arms program in return for two new light-water reactors (LWRs) for generating nuclear power, an interim supply of heavy-fuel oil, some relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions, and—above all to North Korea—gradual improvement of relations. The accord stopped a nuclear program that had already produced five or six bombs’ worth of plutonium then lying in a cooling pond in Yongbyon and that by now would have been capable of reprocessing 30 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.

In halting Pyongyang’s plutonium program, Washington got what it most wanted up front, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans won control of Congress in elections just a week later, unilateralists in the Republican Party denounced the deal as appeasement. Unwilling to challenge Congress, the Clinton administration shrank from implementation. Construction of the first replacement reactor was slow to begin—it was supposed to be ready by 2003 but is three years behind schedule—and the heavy-fuel oil was not always delivered on schedule. Above all, Washington did little to improve political relations with Pyongyang.

When the United States was slow to fulfill the terms of the 1994 accord, North Korea threatened to break it. In February 1997, Pyongyang began warning it would no longer be bound by the accord if Washington failed to uphold it. That played into growing suspicions in the U.S. intelligence community that an underground site at Kumchang-ni might be nuclear related. In late April 1998, the North stopped canning the plutonium-laden spent fuel at Yongbyon, and it threatened to reopen the reactor at Yongbyon for maintenance. Its decision to acquire equipment for enriching uranium probably dates back to this time.

Had North Korea wanted to break the 1994 accord, it could have resumed reprocessing. It did not. Instead, Pyongyang resolved to try again to end enmity, this time using its missiles as inducement. On June 16, 1998, Pyongyang publicly offered to negotiate an end to its development as well as export of ballistic missiles. Development meant not only tests but also production of missiles for testing. Pyongyang also warned that, if the United States was unwilling to declare an end to enmity, it would keep testing missiles—a threat it carried out on August 31, when it launched a three-stage rocket in an unsuccessful attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

Pyongyang’s bargaining tactics led many to conclude that it was engaging in blackmail in an attempt to obtain economic aid without giving up anything in return. It was not. It was playing tit-for-tat, cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end enmity.

On the Road to Reconciliation

The 1998 missile test prompted a policy review in Washington conducted by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who concluded that “the urgent focus of U.S. policy toward the D.P.R.K. [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] must be to end its nuclear weapons and long-range missile-related activities.” In May 1999, Perry traveled to North Korea where he affirmed that the United States was ready to negotiate in earnest again and this time make good on its promises. Prior to Perry’s trip, North Korea let the canning of spent fuel at Yongbyon be completed. It also allowed visits to the Kumchang-ni site by U.S. inspectors, who found it was not nuclear related.

The Perry policy paid off that September when Pyongyang agreed to suspend its test-launching of missiles while negotiations proceeded. In return, Washington promised to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a pledge it was slow to carry out.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who had played a pivotal part in putting Washington back on the road to reconciliation with Pyongyang, was quietly arranging a summit meeting with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il—a meeting the Clinton administration had helped make possible by showing its readiness to cooperate. In anticipation of high-level talks in Washington proposed by Perry, it had handed North Korea a draft communiqué in January 2000 declaring an end to enmity.

At their June 2000 summit meeting, the South and North pledged to reconcile, an irreversible step toward ending a half-century of internecine conflict. By reaching accommodation, the one-time foes would be realigning relations in all of Northeast Asia and opening the way to regional cooperation on security.

As soon as the summit ended, the Clinton administration carried out its promise to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Pyongyang also wanted Washington to end sanctions under U.S. antiterrorism laws. Instead, in a joint statement issued October 6, the North renounced terrorism, and both sides “underscored their commitment to support the international legal regime combating international terrorism and to cooperate with each other in taking effective measures to fight terrorism,” specifically, “to exchange information regarding international terrorism.”

These steps prompted Kim Jong Il to send his second-in-command, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington October 9, 2000. A joint communiqué issued October 12 read, “Neither government would have hostile intent toward the other.” In plain English, we are not enemies.

This declared end to enmity opened the way to a missile deal. Within two weeks, in talks with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il offered to end exports of all missile technology, including those in existing contracts, and to freeze testing, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range of 300 miles or more. That covered the Nodong; the Taepo Dong-1 and 2; and, arguably, the Scud-C. In return, the United States offered to arrange for the launch of two or three satellites a year. The North said it would accept compensation in kind, not cash, to replace revenue forgone by halting its missile exports. Though it did not say so at the time, Washington was prepared to arrange for $200-300 million a year in investment and aid.1

To turn the freeze into a verifiable ban, significant issues remained to be explored and resolved: “elimination” of North Korea’s missiles, on-site monitoring to verify the cessation of missile production and deployment (what negotiators called “transparency” and “confidence-building measures on missiles”), and extending the freeze to all missiles capable of a range of more than 180 miles, the standard set by the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The October 12 joint communiqué alluded to one way to verify the accord. “The sides agreed on the desirability of greater transparency in carrying out their respective obligations under the Agreed Framework,” it reads. “In this regard, they noted the value of the access which removed U.S. concerns about the underground site at Kumchang-ni.” North Korea had allowed U.S. inspectors to visit the site twice and even proposed permanent monitoring at the site in the form of a joint venture. Such transparency was needed at other suspect nuclear sites in the North, as well as for verification of a missile ban.

Above all, North Korea wanted President Bill Clinton to come to Pyongyang to seal the missile deal and place his imprimatur on the October 9 pledge, thereby consummating North Korea’s 10-year campaign to end enmity with the United States. Why would North Korea give up nuclear arms and missiles, never mind its artillery threat to Seoul, if the United States remained its foe?

Reconciliation Derailed

President Clinton decided not to travel to North Korea, and without his commitment to go, negotiations with the North stalled. On June 17, 2002, Clinton said as much to the Council on Foreign Relations: “We were very close to ending the North Korean missile program in the year 2000. I believe if I had been willing to go there, we would have ended it.”

Instead of picking up the ball where Bill Clinton dropped it, George W. Bush moved the goalposts when he assumed the presidency in 2001. In so doing, he picked a fight with ally South Korea. The White House broke with Kim Dae-jung in March 2001 by publicly repudiating Kim’s policy of reconciliation and privately discouraging the South from concluding a peace agreement with the North or providing it with electricity. Bush also disparaged Kim Jong Il, not a diplomatic way to address someone who had just offered to stop making and selling missiles.

After completing a review of policy toward North Korea, the Bush administration reneged on past U.S. commitments and reinterpreted agreements with the North unilaterally. First, it did not reaffirm the October 12, 2000, U.S.-North Korea pledge of no “hostile intent”—a pledge it would repudiate the next year when it labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil.” Second, the White House announced June 6, 2001, that it would seek “improved implementation” of the 1994 Agreed Framework—in effect, reinterpreting it to require prompt nuclear inspections without offering anything in return. Third, the administration wanted the North to adopt “a less threatening conventional military posture,” which Pyongyang believes it cannot do without reciprocity by Washington and Seoul, given its military inferiority. The White House also decided that, as a matter of policy, progress toward an agreement on missiles would depend on progress on other issues of concern. That assured no progress across the board.

In response to the June 6 White House statement, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman on June 18 called on Washington to implement “the provisions of the D.P.R.K.-U.S. Agreed Framework and the D.P.R.K.-U.S. joint communiqué as agreed upon.” The North followed that up June 28 with the hint of a deal: it linked a U.S. demand for nuclear inspections with its own demand for electricity, which it sees as compensation for the delay in providing the first reactor promised under the Agreed Framework. At the same time, however, the North warned of tit-for-tat: “If no measure is taken for the compensation for the loss of electricity, the D.P.R.K. can no longer keep its nuclear activities in a state of freeze and implement the Agreed Framework.”2

Grinding Axes

Then came September 11. The next day, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman voiced regret and reiterated North Korea’s opposition to all forms of terrorism. On September 15, the head of a delegation from Pyongyang, arriving in Seoul for ministerial talks, also expressed regret. A senior Foreign Ministry official handed Sweden’s chargé in Pyongyang a note for the United States expressing condolences about the September 11 attacks—a signal of willingness to cooperate on terrorism.

Far from cooperating on terrorism or anything else, the Bush administration sounded like it was spoiling for a fight. Instead of reaffirming the declaration of no “hostile intent,” Bush repudiated it in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he said, referring to North Korea, “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” He went on:

By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference could be catastrophic.

What began as the purple prose of speechwriters soon became administration policy—and not just toward Iraq. On May 6, in a reference that drew little public attention, Undersecretary of State John Bolton accused North Korea as well as Iraq of having “covert nuclear programs, in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT].” Bolton’s statement was followed June 1 by Bush’s announcement of a new doctrine for combating states that are developing weapons of mass destruction by waging preventive war—without allies, without United Nations sanction, in violation of international law. “We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties, and then systematically break them,” he declared. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”

Even though it was aware of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile activities, the Bush administration made no effort to enter into negotiations. The administration had long said it would meet “anytime, anywhere,” but Pyongyang’s willingness to resume talks, conveyed to South Korean special envoy Lim Dong-won in early April 2002, caught it unprepared—mired in an internal struggle over whom to send and what negotiating position to take. On April 30, the administration offered dates for a resumption, but the ongoing internal struggle led it to seek a postponement. It cited the deadly July 2 naval clash between North and South Korea as a reason to postpone talks proposed for July 10-12 in Pyongyang, withdrawing the offer before North Korea had the chance to respond. Even after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s brief chat with Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Forum on July 31, Washington did not offer to set a date for the start of talks.

Meanwhile, hard-liners were trying to undermine the Agreed Framework, the basis for negotiations. Some Republicans in Congress had long pressed to halt heavy-fuel oil deliveries and reactor construction and abandon the Agreed Framework altogether. Taking a more moderate tone, the administration opted not to certify North Korea’s compliance with the accord, a requirement under U.S. law, while at the same time saying it would continue to abide by the accord’s provisions.

Some administration officials wanted to go further and accuse North Korea of “anticipatory breach” of the accord—on the grounds it had not allowed inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine how much reprocessing of plutonium it had done before 1991. A case could be made that the North has not permitted inspections that are mandated by the accord, for instance, at the isotope production laboratory at Yongbyon. But the inspections demanded by some Bush officials, however desirable, were not required by the text of the Agreed Framework, which reads: “When a significant portion of the LWR project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components, the D.P.R.K. will come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA.” Nothing in the negotiating record obliges the North to act sooner.3

Pyongyang’s New Tack

Some hard-liners in the Bush administration claim its tough stance brought North Korea to seek accommodation with South Korea and Japan, but they’ve got it backward: it led Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations with Pyongyang in order to head off a crisis.

Pyongyang opened the way. Convinced it was getting nowhere with Washington, Pyongyang changed course in September 2001 and resumed ministerial-level talks with Seoul to implement agreements reached in the June 2000 summit. In secret talks in Beijing around the same time, North Korea began tiptoeing toward a resumption of normalization talks with Japan as well. This marked an important shift for Pyongyang, which for the past decade had engaged seriously with Seoul and Tokyo only when it was convinced that Washington was cooperating as well. It had finally concluded that the path to reconciliation with Washington runs through Seoul and Tokyo. It was also reducing the risk of renewed confrontation with Washington by persuading Seoul and Tokyo it was ready to deal.

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s September 17 summit meeting with Kim Jong Il was clear evidence of this. After the Bush administration spurned talks with Pyongyang, Tokyo tired of waiting for Washington. On February 18, less than three weeks after the “axis of evil” speech, Koizumi, with Bush at his side, said at a press conference in Tokyo, “Japan, through cooperation and coordination with the U.S. and Korea, would like to work on normalization of relations with North Korea.” Pyongyang did not take long to respond. It revived Red Cross talks and pledged to resume its search for the missing persons that Tokyo suspected it had kidnapped two decades ago.

Yet, it came as a shock to some when Koizumi announced August 30 that he would hold a summit meeting in Pyongyang. On the eve of the summit, in a written response to questions from Kyodo News Service, Kim Jong Il said that the time had come to “liquidate the past.” Japan had to “apologize sincerely” for its World War II occupation and “the issue of compensation must be correctly resolved.” Left unsaid was that he was about to acknowledge the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea. An end to “abnormal relations,” Kim said, “will also dissipate the security concerns of the Japanese people.”4

The September 17 communiqué produced by the summit put security at the top of the agenda for Japan’s dialogue with North Korea. “In step with the normalization of their relations,” they agreed to hold parallel talks on “issues relating [to] security.” These talks would “underscore the importance of building a structure of cooperative relations” in Northeast Asia—a possible sign of Pyongyang’s support for Tokyo’s formula of six-party talks—and, in a joint signal to Washington, “promote dialogue among the countries concerned as regards all security matters including nuclear and missile issues.” North Korea committed itself to an indefinite extension of its moratorium on missile test launches. Whether Pyongyang also indicated willingness to eliminate its Nodong and longer-range missiles is not yet known.

The communiqué committed Tokyo and Pyongyang to resume normalization talks in October and “exert all efforts to establish diplomatic ties at an early date.” These talks would address economic assistance to the North, “including grants in aid, low-interest long-term loans and humanitarian aid through international organizations” and “loans and credits through the International Cooperation Bank of Japan.”

For Japan to act on its own was unprecedented. Since the start of the Cold War, it had deferred to the United States on security matters. Knowing North Korea wanted direct negotiations with the United States, Japan tried to coax Washington into engaging.

Unilateralists in Washington might have wanted to impede North Korea-Japan rapprochement, but others close to the president recognized that failure to re-engage could put the U.S. military presence in play in Japanese politics by alienating supporters of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and strengthening the hand of right-wingers who insist “Japan can say no” to the United States and look after its own security unbound by the alliance.

These concerns at last led the administration to hold the first substantive high-level talks with North Korea since November 2000. However, when the United States sent an emissary to Pyongyang for talks, the administration was in no mood to negotiate. Tokyo continues to push the United States toward engagement, and failing that, it may try to broker a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.

Tit-for-Tat on Enrichment

Having moved to accommodate Seoul and Tokyo, Pyongyang was ready for nuclear tit-for-tat with Washington when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly arrived October 3. A day after Kelly had confronted him with evidence of the country’s covert nuclear program, North Korean negotiator Kang Sok Ju acknowledged its existence. The admission was at once a threat to develop nuclear arms and an offer to stop. Kelly made it clear Washington did not want further talks; the North had to stop, or else.

“Program” has a range of meanings from seeking to acquire gas centrifuges and other matériel usable for enrichment to having produced quantities of highly enriched uranium. U.S. intelligence is said to have proof that the North succeeded in obtaining some gas centrifuges from Pakistan and “was trying to acquire large amounts of high-strength aluminum” to make more—from Japan, of all places. U.S. intelligence says it “recently learned that the North is contructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade.” That leaves plenty of time to negotiate a verifiable end to the program.

The stunning revelation confirmed the worst suspicions of some, that North Korea had intended to dupe the United States all along by substituting a covert nuclear program for the one it allowed to be frozen. That contention does not seem plausible. After all, if North Korea had been determined to acquire nuclear arms early in the 1990s, it could have done so by shutting down its reactor at Yongbyon anytime between 1991 and 1994, removing the spent nuclear fuel, and reprocessing it to extract plutonium, then refueling the reactor to generate more plutonium. It could also have completed two more reactors then under construction. By now, it could have generated enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons. Why give up a Barry Bonds for a player to be named? And if North Korea was trying uranium enrichment because it was easier to hide, then why acknowledge that fact in talks with Kelly?

Two other interpretations seem more tenable. One is that after 1997 the North began hedging against U.S. failure to live up to the Agreed Framework but is now prepared to trade in that hedge. Another is that it is playing tit-for-tat to induce the United States to end enmity. These explanations seem to fit the data disclosed by U.S. intelligence, which dates the first enrichment activity back to 1998. After 2000, activity picks up again in highly visible ways. In other words, after North Korea warned of retaliation for what it called U.S. failure to live up to the Agreed Framework in 1997, it decided to shop for gas centrifuges for enriching uranium. It gave new impetus to the effort in 2001 and 2002 when the Bush administration’s hostility became apparent. It would be useful to know whether U.S. intelligence detected any attempted purchases in 2000 when Washington was being cooperative.

Either way, Pyongyang keeps signaling its desire for a deal with Washington—and not just on nuclear and missile issues. In a June 10 speech to the Asia Society, Powell set out a four-point agenda for talks: “First, the North must get out of the proliferation business and eliminate long-range missiles that threaten other countries.” Second, “it must make a much more serious effort to provide for its suffering citizens.” Third, “the North needs to move toward a less threatening conventional military posture” and “live up to its past pledges to implement basic confidence-building measures with the South.” “Finally, North Korea must come into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards that it agreed to when it signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” In reply, Pyongyang accepted Powell’s agenda, suggesting a new or revised Agreed Framework to accommodate it. It also moved to set up a military hotline in the context of constructing a rail link to the South.

On August 29, Bolton gave a much-ballyhooed speech in Seoul. The North, he said, has “an active program” of chemical weapons; has “one of the most robust bioweapons programs on earth” and “is in stark violation of the Biological Weapons Convention”; is “the world’s foremost peddler of ballistic missile-related equipment, components, materials, and technical expertise”; and “has not begun to allow inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency to complete all of their required tasks. Many doubt that North Korea ever intends to comply fully with its NPT obligations.”

On August 31, 2002, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman recited all of Bolton’s concerns and said, “The D.P.R.K. clarified more than once that if the U.S. has a willingness to drop its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K., it will have dialogue with the U.S. to clear the U.S. of its worries over its security.” It was putting biological, chemical, and conventional arms on the negotiating table—once the nuclear and missile deals are done. On October 20, Kim Young Nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly and titular chief of state, reiterated the August 31 formula in talks with Jeong Se-hyun, South Korea’s unification minister: “If the United States is willing to drop its hostile policy toward us, we are prepared to deal with various security concerns through dialogue.”5

In the talks with Kelly, Kang Sok Ju put the North’s covert nuclear program on the negotiating table. By Kelly’s own account, Kang laid out the terms of trade in general terms only. He asked for assurances the United States would not attack the North, would sign a peace agreement or declare an end to enmity, and would respect its sovereignty.6 A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman put the terms somewhat differently on October 25. North Korea, he said, “was ready to seek a negotiated settlement of this issue on the following three conditions: firstly, if the United States recognizes the D.P.R.K.’s sovereignty; secondly, if it assures the D.P.R.K. of nonaggression; and thirdly, if the United States does not hinder the economic development of the D.P.R.K.” He spoke of “a nonaggression treaty” between the two.

Already aware of the enrichment program, Seoul and Tokyo had moved to engage Pyongyang in diplomatic give-and-take. They have not been driven off course. After Kelly briefed them on his talks, Seoul went ahead with ministerial talks, and Tokyo moved up the date for resumption of normalization talks with the North. “I have decided to resume negotiations,” Koizumi said October 18, “because I judged that taking the first major step of moving from an adversarial relationship to a cooperative one would be in the best interests of Japan.” During his summit meeting with Kim Jong Il, he added, “I discerned their intention to seek a comprehensive promotion of talks on a number of issues, such as nuclear weapons development and other national security issues.”7 A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official explained Japan’s decision to Asahi Shimbun this way: “We cannot afford to have North Korea leave the negotiating table. If the United States takes a more hard-line stance, we have to mollify North Korea. The negotiations have definitely become much harder.”8

In its ongoing talks with South Korea and its responses to the Powell agenda, the Bolton list of concerns, and the Kelly accusation, North Korea has now said it is prepared to negotiate with the United States on all of Washington’s security concerns. Early in November, North Korean ambassador to the United Nations Han Song Ryol spelled that out for anyone who had missed the point. “Everything will be negotiable,” he said, including inspections of the enrichment program and shutting it down. “Our government will resolve all U.S. security concerns through the talks if your government has a will to end its hostile policy.”9

Negotiating a Way Out

Diplomatic give-and-take with North Korea could satisfy U.S. nuclear and other security concerns without a replay of the 1994 nuclear crisis. Then, like now, the United States had three options: impose sanctions, which were rightly deemed unlikely to be effective in curbing the North’s nuclear program; attack the nuclear sites at Yongbyon, which was not certain to eliminate all the nuclear material and sites in the North but certain to raise a political storm in the South; or negotiate. By refusing to negotiate, the administration might leave itself with no other option than to live with a nuclear-arming North.

The 1994 Agreed Framework is a basis for negotiating further inspections of nuclear activity by the North. Although the accord does not explicitly refer to uranium enrichment, it does say, “The D.P.R.K. will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It thereby incorporates the obligation under that declaration “not to possess facilities for reprocessing or enrichment” without providing for verification. The visits to the suspect site at Kumchang-ni under the Agreed Framework are useful precedents for that.

In a test of wills, North Korea does not lack leverage; it has yet to renounce the Agreed Framework, throw out the IAEA inspectors, reopen the plutonium-filled casks, or restart its Yongbyon reactor. Instead of trying to compel rightly reluctant allies to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang, President Bush needs to ask himself: Is the world’s only superpower tough enough to sit down and negotiate in earnest with North Korea?

U.S. hard-liners may want to use Pyongyang’s “confession” to punish the North, but the crime-and-punishment approach has never worked before, and there is no reason to believe that it will work now. Sooner or later, every administration since Ronald Reagan’s has given diplomatic give-and-take a try. Let’s hope this one does not have to undermine its alliances or go back to the brink of war before doing so.


The author would like to thank the Carnegie Corporation and the Ploughshares Fund for their generous support.

1. Michael R. Gordon, “How Politics Sank Accord on Missiles With North Korea,” The New York Times, March 6, 2001, p. A1.
2. These two statements and others issued by North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesmen can be found at www.kcna.co.jp.
3. Robert Gallucci, An ACA Press Conference, “Progress and Challenges in Denuclearizing North Korea,” Arms Control Today, May 2002, p. 16-17.
4. “N. Korea’s Kim Eyes Better Ties, Ready to Visit Japan,” Kyodo News, September 14, 2002.
5. Jay Shim, “N.K. Ready to Resolve Nuclear Crisis Thru Dialogue: Kim YN,” Korea Times, October 21, 2002.
6. Doug Struck, “Nuclear Program Not Negotiable, U.S. Told North Korea,” The Washington Post, October 20, 2002, p. A18.
7. “Suddenly, Japan Has a Lot on Its Plate,” Asahi Shimbun, October 19, 2002.
8. Tetsuya Hakoda, “Analysis: North Korea Plays Wild Card,” Asahi Shimbun, October 18, 2002.
9. Philip Shenon, “North Korea Says Nuclear Program Can Be Negotiated,” The New York Times, November 3, 2002, p. A1.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project
at the Social Science Research Council.