Course Correction on North Korea?

Daryl G. Kimball

Wearing a somber gray suit, North Korea’s number two leader entered the White House and met with President Bill Clinton for 45 minutes. The unprecedented visit produced a joint communiqué and put efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programs back on track.

The joint statement pledged that North Korea would grant U.S. and international inspectors better access to its nuclear facilities. In turn, the United States vowed to accelerate the normalization of relations and to provide a negative security pledge stating that it bears “no hostile intent” toward the military-controlled regime.

That was three years ago. Since 2000, the security situation on the Korean peninsula has deteriorated badly. President George W. Bush’s decision to delay additional talks and his infamous “axis of evil” remarks did not help. North Korean efforts to acquire uranium-enrichment capabilities and the subsequent U.S.-led decision to cut off fuel aid poisoned the relationship further. Pyongyang escalated the crisis by ejecting international inspectors and restarting its advanced plutonium-production facilities.

Bush has prudently maintained that he seeks a “peaceful” and “diplomatic” solution. This makes sense. North Korea can potentially churn out enough material to make six bombs in a year, and pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear sites could lead to catastrophic war. Yet, the president’s advisers have thus far failed to provide him with a practical and effective negotiating strategy. A midcourse correction is now essential.

At the previous multilateral meetings in April and August of this year, Bush’s envoy essentially told the North Koreans that they must dismantle their nuclear programs before discussions on other issues could begin. Disappointed, the other states involved in the talks—China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—have pressed the United States to develop a workable proposal. North Korea threatened not to engage in further talks.

Now, as a possible third and final round of talks approaches, Bush has stepped into the policy void by suggesting that the administration is interested in discussing multilateral security guarantees not to “attack” or “invade” North Korea. Like the 2000 meeting and no-hostile-intent pledge, a formal negative security pledge from Bush could jump-start progress.

A peaceful way out of the latest North Korean nuclear crisis requires that the United States address the North Korean regime’s perceptions of insecurity. North Korea has indicated that it will verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, but it will not do so if its concerns are not met. Bush’s willingness to discuss a security pledge should signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that he is not only being responsive to his negotiating proposals but to his fears about U.S. aggression.

So long as North Korea agrees to give up its entire nuclear weapons program, allows re-entry of inspectors, and suspends further plutonium separation or uranium enrichment, the Bush administration should pledge not to attack North Korea. The pledge should continue as long as the North is actively dismantling any nuclear weapons and fissile-material production facilities, according to the terms and timetable of a new agreement.

Even if a negative security pledge changes North Korea’s behavior in the short term, the path forward remains littered with hazards. Conducting effective diplomacy requires more than issuing non-negotiable demands. The president and his closest advisers must overcome internal differences about its negotiating stance and begin to engage in a genuine give-and-take with North Korean officials. In addition, the White House cannot afford to allow senior U.S. officials to jeopardize progress by leveling gratuitous personal criticism against North Korea’s leaders, as Undersecretary of State John Bolton did on the eve of the August round of talks.

If progress remains slow, as it most likely will be, hard-line skeptics within the administration will lobby the White House to impose tougher political and economic sanctions, hoping this will produce regime change in Pyongyang. Sanctions would do little to stop North Korea’s advanced nuclear programs and could provoke even more destabilizing actions, such as a demonstration nuclear-test explosion.

As William Perry, former secretary of defense and special envoy on North Korea, said in 1999, the United States must remain focused on the most urgent threat: North Korea’s plutonium program. As Perry noted, success would require that U.S. leaders work with our allies to meet North Korea’s basic security and economic concerns.

Bush finally appears to have recognized the wisdom of Perry’s formula. Now, the administration must put this plan into action. Otherwise, it will have failed to prevent the emergence of a new and dangerous nuclear power in Asia.