Daryl G. Kimball
In a potent political one-liner delivered in January, President George W. Bush prominently labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “axis of evil” that is supporting terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. While the threat of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction is real, the problems of terrorism and proliferation are not identical and cannot be addressed with a one-size-fits-all approach.
The president is to be commended for focusing attention on the ongoing threat of nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile proliferation in dangerous regions. But his gratuitous name-calling in the absence of practical, country-specific nonproliferation strategies has complicated the task of addressing proliferation problems, particularly in North Korea.
Bush’s statement puts North Korea and Iran in the same category as Iraq and has raised concerns about military action against all three. Our friends and allies may eventually agree to collective military action to enforce Security Council mandates for UN weapons inspections in Iraq, but leaders in South Korea, Japan, and Europe correctly understand that the most effective approach to Pyongyang is resuming the North-South-U.S. dialogue.
While in Seoul for a February state visit, Bush had to clarify that the United States “has no intention of invading North Korea,” and he reiterated his administration’s willingness to talk “anytime, anywhere” with Pyongyang on a range of security issues. Yet, in the same speech, he repeated harsh recriminations that substantially undermine the possibility that the North will re-engage. The president’s tough talk may play well in Washington’s conservative political circles, but it has plunged the United States and North Korea into another cycle of mistrust and missed opportunity.
Rather than launching verbal jabs and waiting for the North to resume the security dialogue, the United States should take concrete steps on the most significant issues: averting a looming crisis on the implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and resuming negotiations on a verifiable freeze of the North’s ballistic missile enterprise. To start, Bush should appoint a new, high-level coordinator for North Korea policy. The coordinator’s first task would be to bring some practical ideas and proposals—not harsh recriminations—to the bargaining table.
The Agreed Framework is a good, but imperfect, deal that both parties must honor. Under the agreement, the United States is facilitating construction of two safeguarded light-water nuclear power reactors, and, in exchange, North Korea is to verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons program. So far, this deal has effectively frozen Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but difficulties lie ahead.
North Korea will soon be obligated to comply with all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which prohibit military nuclear activities. It must do so when a “significant portion” of the two light-water nuclear power reactors are completed but before delivery of their nuclear components. Due to construction delays, a significant portion of the reactors will not be built until approximately 2005. IAEA inspection of declared and undeclared nuclear facilities in North Korea could take two to three years. Further slippage could set off a new high-stakes confrontation.
Prompt initiation of inspections is important, even though the Agreed Framework does not yet require North Korea to admit the IAEA. If the Bush administration is interested in results, it should re-affirm its support for the Agreed Framework, not threaten to stop implementation as some in Congress have suggested. Working with South Korea and Japan, Bush should, if necessary, be prepared to offer incentives—including in-kind food and electricity aid—for North Korean cooperation on early inspections. Such an arrangement could simultaneously improve the likelihood of completing the inspections and address shortcomings in the Agreed Framework’s implementation.
Through dialogue, not diatribes, Bush also has an opportunity to halt North Korea’s ballistic missile program—a prime source of global missile proliferation. In the final days of the Clinton administration, negotiators reportedly came “tantalizingly close” to an agreement. Sadly, the Bush administration has failed to pursue this possibility, though it is clearly in U.S. security interests. Given the North’s pledge to halt missile testing through 2003, there is still a window of opportunity to secure a sufficiently verifiable agreement that bans further missile exports, production, and testing and that bars further missile deployments.
Though Kim Jong-Il’s regime is difficult, undemocratic, and uninterested in its people’s welfare, history shows that pragmatic, principled engagement with such states can produce results that enhance U.S. security. Unless he is willing to seriously pursue such a course, Bush may fumble one of the United States’ better opportunities to solve one of the world’s thorniest nuclear and missile proliferation challenges.