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Seven Lessons for Dealing With Today's North Korea Nuclear Crisis

Excerpted from Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis


Joel S. Wit, Daniel Poneman, and Robert Gallucci

As the United States and North Korea prepare for a fourth round of talks to resolve an 18-month old crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs, the two countries find themselves fighting over many of the same issues they fought over during the last nuclear crisis in 1993 and 1994. During that showdown, North Korea similarly announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and threatened to take steps (including the production of plutonium) toward building nuclear weapons. The crisis ended with an agreement by North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and provide a full accounting of its past actions in return for a U.S. commitment to meet Pyongyang’s energy needs and begin the process of normalizing bilateral relations. In the following excerpts , U.S. negotiators Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci argue that the previous set of talks hold important lessons for their counterparts today in the Bush administration. Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis is to be released by Brookings Institution Press later this month.

What lessons do the crises of 1993 and 1994 hold for the impasse of today? Now, as then, the critical issue is North Korean access to bomb material, this time highly enriched uranium as well as plutonium. Now, as then, the consequences of failure would be grave: an untethered North Korea would be able to churn out bomb-making material each year for use in threatening its neighbors—or for export to terrorists or others. (The fastest route to Al Qaeda would seem to run through Pakistan, North Korea’s active trading partner in illicit arms and the likely source of the technology North Korea used to enrich uranium.) Now, as then, a difficult relationship with a newly elected South Korean president further complicates an already daunting diplomatic mission. Now, as then, the other regional powers—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—have important roles to play in resolving the crisis.

Mark Twain once observed that by sitting on a hot stove, his cat learned not to sit on a hot stove again. But the cat also learned not to sit on a cold stove. Even if one considered the Agreed Framework a hot stove, the question is whether the government could design a cold stove that could support a lasting and effective diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear challenge. To do so, it would have to consider what kind of agreement would advance U.S. interests and how the United States should go about negotiating such an arrangement. The 1994 crisis has relevance for today on both counts.

Lesson 1. Set strategic priorities, then stick to them.
It may seem too obvious to dwell on this lesson, but setting and maintaining priorities is easier said than done. During the first North Korean crisis, the Clinton administration placed the highest strategic priority on blocking North Korean access to additional stocks of separated plutonium. Clarity on that point enabled decision-makers to resist pressures inside the administration to press other (admittedly important) objectives—curbing Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and its threatening conventional force posture—to the point where they would jeopardize the resolution of the nuclear crisis.

Failure to set priorities quickly leads to stalemate. For example, the Bush administration proposed a comprehensive approach in dealing with North Korea, a “bold initiative” that would offer energy and other carrots if North Korea verifiably dismantled its nuclear program and satisfied other U.S. security concerns.31 Such an approach runs the risk of failure because it seeks full North Korean performance on all U.S. demands before offering significant U.S. performance on any North Korean demands. There was never any chance North Korea would accede to such a position, especially since time played in Pyongyang’s favor as each passing day it enhanced its own nuclear capabilities. Since the president has made clear that the United States seeks a diplomatic resolution to the current crisis, some parallelism in performance will need to be negotiated if the parties are to achieve agreement on the core issues.

Lesson 2. Integrate carrots and sticks into a strategy of coercive diplomacy. If offered only carrots, the North Koreans will conclude that the other side is more desperate for a deal than they are and will likely continue on a path of defiance and increasing negotiating demands. Offering only sticks will tell the North Koreans that there is no benefit from complying with international demands, except avoidance of pain. They might as well continue down a dangerous path of defiance until their acts become so threatening that the international community will have to respond, by which time Pyongyang may have substantially strengthened its bargaining leverage. That is essentially what occurred after Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly challenged the North Koreans in October 2002 regarding their secret enrichment program.

The Clinton administration relied on both carrots and sticks to try to resolve the 1994 crisis, integrating them into a negotiating position that presented a clear choice.32 If Pyongyang returned to full compliance with international nonproliferation norms, then the international community would respond favorably, reassuring North Korea that compliance would enhance its national security, and even prosperity. It was easier to define the acceptable end-state than to define a viable diplomatic path to reach it. Once the North Koreans were prepared to back down and comply with their nonproliferation obligations, they still sought a face-saving way to do so. This was the “escape valve” that President Clinton kept prodding his advisers to embed into the U.S. negotiating position and, deus ex machina, finally appeared in the form of Jimmy Carter.

At the same time, Pyongyang had to know that if it passed up the face-saving exit and continued to defy the international community, it would experience increasing isolation and hardship. In 1994 this coercive side of diplomacy came to the fore through a gradual military buildup on the peninsula and efforts to seek global support for economic sanctions. Ominous signals from Beijing at the time must have undermined the North Koreans’ confidence that China would intervene to insulate North Korea from the effect of UN Security Council sanctions. These efforts put pressure on North Korea to back down when the crisis crested in June 1994. Arriving in Pyongyang at the critical moment, former President Jimmy Carter gave the North Koreans a face-saving way out. They took it.

Lesson 3. Use multilateral institutions and forums to reinforce U.S. diplomacy. Each of North Korea’s neighbors has unique equities and assets that must be brought into the settlement. South Korea is the most directly affected, sharing the peninsula and innumerable ties of blood, culture, and history. The United States—a neighbor by virtue of the 37,000 American troops deployed across the Demilitarized Zone—has an unshakable security commitment to South Korea and broader political and economic interests in the region. Japan shares a complex history with Korea—including its occupation of the peninsula ending with Tokyo’s defeat in World War II, the painful issues of Japanese abducted by the North Korean regime, and ties between ethnic Koreans living in Japan and their relatives in the North. It also has the economic resources likely to be an essential part of any settlement with North Korea.

China—traditionally as close to North Korea as “lips and teeth”—has loosened its ties but remains more closely involved with Pyongyang than any other regional player. It also retains the most leverage of any outsider, as the provider of the majority of North Korea’s fuel and food, without which Pyongyang’s economy could not survive. While Russia does not approximate that degree of influence, it is bound to the North by treaty and historical ties dating back to Josef Stalin. It can still contribute significantly to a diplomatic settlement of North Korea’s differences with the world.

The Clinton administration worked closely with all of the other regional players in the quest for a solution to the nuclear crisis. It also made full use of all available multilateral institutions to bring pressure to bear upon North Korea in the effort to persuade it to comply with international nonproliferation norms. When the Clinton administration engaged in bilateral discussions with North Korea, it did so with multilateral backing—encouraged initially by South Korea and China, authorized by the UN Security Council. These bilateral talks in no way detracted from the administration effort to secure broad multilateral support for a negotiated solution if possible, and for the use of coercive measures if necessary. To the contrary, the showing of its good-faith bilateral efforts helped the United States make its case in multilateral forums.

Lesson 4. Use bilateral talks to probe diplomatic alternatives.
While multilateral diplomacy is indispensable, involving more governments—with varying motives, interests, and objectives—at best complicates and at worst dilutes or even undermines U.S. efforts. The United States should therefore use multilateral diplomacy but not be locked into it exclusively. As a sovereign nation, the United States must be free to use any mechanism—including bilateral talks—to advance its unique interests and objectives. In that sense, bilateral talks are not merely a “gift” to be conferred on other governments, but a vector to convey U.S. perspectives unalloyed and undiluted by multilateral involvement.

American negotiators sometimes envisaged outcomes that would satisfy its multilateral partners’ needs, even if the partners were unwilling or unable (because of their negotiating constraints or domestic political factors) to approve certain negotiating positions in advance. Of course, the trade-off is that although reducing the number of parties in direct negotiations can facilitate reaching a deal, it can complicate implementation to the degree that the arrangement does not adequately address the concerns of the governments whose cooperation is essential to success.

Today the Bush administration faces the same dilemma. It has relied almost entirely on multilateral talks, rejecting any but fleeting bilateral contacts with Pyongyang. This approach may give the key governments a greater stake in ensuring that an agreement is fully implemented, create greater pressure on Pyongyang by presenting a unified front, and provide an avenue for others to bring carrots or sticks to bear in the service of the collective diplomatic effort. The disadvantages include an inevitable muffling of U.S. positions in relation to Pyongyang, while also subjecting Washington to greater pressure to modify its own positions.

Most important, placing so much weight on the multilateral format of the discussions with North Korea allows Pyongyang to dictate the pace of the crisis. Pyongyang already makes the decisions on its own nuclear activities. Letting it off the hook of “confronting its accusers” also gives it the upper hand in deciding the pace of the diplomatic effort. Rigid insistence on specific formats or conditions (as opposed to an “anytime, anywhere” offer for talks) permits the North Koreans—now liberated from the cameras, seals, and inspectors of the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] that they ejected in 2002—to continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons while sidestepping international pressure. Since time is on North Korea’s side, the United States and its allies should seek to force the issue by reasserting control over the pacing of the crisis.

In the Civil War, it was not enough for Abraham Lincoln to refuse to recognize the Confederate States of America. He had to take affirmative action to interfere with the Confederacy, which would have realized its strategic aims simply by carrying on its activities independently from—and unmolested by—the Union. Similarly, North Korea can realize its strategic objectives simply by continuing its current path until someone stops it. The longer real negotiations are delayed, the greater the nuclear capability—and bargaining leverage—the North will have accumulated. So whether a particular round of talks with North Korea is bilateral or multilateral is less important than that they occur sooner rather than later. (This is where setting priorities correctly comes into play.)

Lesson 5. South Korean support is crucial to any lasting solution of the North Korean nuclear problem. The role of South Korea is as complex as it is central to resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis. Seoul’s support is critical, since any action or solution, whatever form it takes, will be on its peninsula. To that end, in 1993 and 1994 the United States and South Korea spent enormous amounts of time and energy working together to forge a common strategy. Contrary to popular belief in South Korea, time after time Washington deferred to Seoul or explicitly took its views into account. The record shows that South Korea had a remarkable degree of influence, even though its positions frequently changed.

Some South Koreans have complained about being harnessed to an ally ready to sacrifice their interests on the altar of nuclear nonproliferation. The most notable example is President Kim’s recent claim that he stopped President Clinton from starting a second Korean War.34 In fact, there were no eleventh-hour phone calls to the White House. President Kim was solidly behind the American drive for sanctions, and his government was well informed about the gradual military buildup on the peninsula as well as the more extensive deployments that were about to be considered. Seoul did not know about American consideration of a preemptive strike against Yongbyon, but it is clear from the record of the Principals Committee meetings that Washington would never have authorized an attack without prior consultation with Seoul. That consultation never became necessary after the June breakthrough that returned the nuclear issue to the negotiating table.

In important respects, the challenge of maintaining U.S.-South Korean solidarity is more difficult today than it was a decade ago. Then the majority of South Koreans, and their government, had personal memories of the Korean War and its aftermath as well as serious doubts about Pyongyang’s intentions. Now a younger generation has taken the reins of power, after years of a Sunshine Policy that has left many South Koreans feeling greater sympathy toward their brethren in the North and greater concern that their peace is more likely to be disturbed by Americans than North Koreans. For Americans, the deference once accorded to Seoul as facing the more imminent threat from the North has since September 11 been displaced by its own sense of vulnerability to the export of nuclear technology to adversaries and, to some, the prospect of North Korean ballistic missiles ranging the continental United States.

Lesson 6. Take full advantage of China’s continuing sway over North Korea
. As the driving force behind the six-party talks in 2003, China assumed a much higher profile as a diplomatic player on the world stage. Its importance in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis was already apparent in 1994. The first crisis broke during China’s transition from unalloyed dedication to its alliance with Pyongyang to a more evenhanded relationship between the two Koreas. That timing left China more open to work cooperatively with Seoul, while giving Pyongyang greater reason to fear abandonment by its prime benefactor. Beijing understood both its own leverage as well as the grave consequences of a North Korean nuclear program and repeatedly, but quietly, nudged Pyongyang toward compliance with its nonproliferation commitments. Beijing’s most important effort unfolded in the spring of 1994, when it tried its hand at mediation after North Korea’s unloading of the fuel rods from the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and appeared to signal that Pyongyang could not count on China blocking the imposition of UN sanctions against North Korea.

Although Chinese officials have traditionally sought to downplay their influence in Pyongyang, they clearly retain greater leverage over the Kim Jong Il regime than any other player. Fortunately, China and the United States agree on two key objectives: (1) the Korean Peninsula should remain stable and secure, and (2) it should be free of nuclear weapons.

But this convergence of views between Washington and Beijing has limits. Specifically, China has a strong interest in avoiding political disruption in North Korea, which argues in favor of seeking a negotiated solution to the nuclear challenge and against taking steps that could induce regime change in North Korea. By 2003, however, some U.S. officials had apparently concluded that the North Koreans were inveterate cheaters with whom no agreement could be reached that would protect American interests. Under this view, agreements should therefore be eschewed in favor of the only practical way to head off North Korean possession of a growing nuclear weapon stockpile: regime change. Whether this would occur by force or by inducing a social collapse through encouraging massive refugee flows out of the North, the bottom line is that pursuit of this objective would drive a wedge between China and the United States.

Lesson 7. Negotiated arrangements can advance U.S. interests even if the other party engages in cheating. Of course, it is possible to construct a deal that would leave the United States in a worse position if the other side cheated. An example would be an agreement that left the other side well positioned to break out of a treaty in a manner that would put the United States at an instant military disadvantage. Nazi Germany’s rearmament in violation of the Versailles Treaty, combined with Europe’s failure to respond, comes to mind. But it is also possible to construct a treaty that leaves the United States better off every day that the other party is compliant, and not significantly disadvantaged if the other party cheats.

U.S. negotiators will always need to make hard choices. It would be desirable if any new deal includes comprehensive limits on North Korea’s nuclear program, extending beyond known plutonium production facilities to encompass not only uranium-enrichment activities but also any nuclear weapons Pyongyang may have already built or obtained, as well as its research and development efforts. Such a commitment would be impossible to verify with confidence, even with “anytime, anywhere” inspections in North Korea. It is just too easy to cheat.

Should U.S. negotiators pass up stronger commitments if they cannot be confidently verified? What if a new deal imposes greater restrictions on Pyongyang with more extensive inspections than the 1994 accord but still leaves uncertainties? Would such a deal serve U.S. interests? Similar questions confronted the United States in 1994, when the president had to decide whether to seek more immediate limits on North Korea’s threatening plutonium production program in lieu of immediate special inspections.

One way to try to avoid falling into a situation in which the president faces only extreme options is to set “red lines” for North Korea. Initially, the Bush administration seemed leery to do that on the assumption that “if you draw it, they will cross it.” There is always a danger that Pyongyang will cross these lines, either deliberately or through miscalculation. In the spring of 1994, North Korea did cross a red line by unloading the 5-megawatt reactor and destroying important historical information contained in the spent fuel rods, triggering the march toward confrontation. But one month later, Pyongyang did not expel the IAEA inspectors monitoring the Yongbyon facility, perhaps in part because of Jimmy Carter’s trip but also because it knew that could trigger an American preemptive attack. In short, picking a clear boundary for acceptable behavior can prove a successful deterrent, but only if it is backed by the credible threat of force. The United States should not be bluffing, and it must be clear that it is not.

For four decades, the greatest threat of nuclear conflict emerged from the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall set events in train that ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The first major nuclear proliferation threat—of seeing four nuclear-weapon states emerge full-blown at the end of the Cold War—was averted when U.S. negotiators persuaded the newly formed nations of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to relinquish all of their nuclear weapons to Russia. The second threat—that Russia would become a source of nuclear weapons proliferation from the diversion of weapon scientists and fissile materials to hostile forces—spawned a series of U.S. initiatives under the seminal Nunn-Lugar legislation aimed at promoting the safe and secure dismantlement of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal.

North Korea posed the third great nuclear threat. Addressing that threat as a matter of national urgency led to the concerted effort described in these pages. The urgency was dictated not only by the dire consequences that unbounded North Korean plutonium production could have produced but also by the impending review and extension conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], the cornerstone of global efforts to combat the spread of nuclear weapons. Had the United States failed to contain the North Korean threat in time, it would have torn a hole in the regime just at the moment when the nations of the world were gathering in New York to decide whether to extend the treaty indefinitely, or to let it lapse.

The Agreed Framework permitted the NPT conference to proceed with a North Korea that had reaffirmed its commitment to the treaty, accepted IAEA monitoring to ensure the continuation of the nuclear freeze, and promised ultimate North Korean acceptance of inspections to clarify remaining questions about its past nuclear activities. The accord earned the support of the IAEA, and the NPT was successfully extended indefinitely and without condition, by consensus, in May 1995.35

The response of the United States to the North Korean nuclear challenge was pragmatic, guided by the overarching objective to stop Pyongyang’s access to more separated plutonium. It was principled, gaining support of the world community through the UN Security Council, the IAEA, and other forums to support U.S. efforts to persuade Pyongyang to curtail and accept international limits on its nuclear activities. It was complex, involving constant scrutiny of U.S. interests and the effects of shifting events, continual consultations with friends and allies, and a difficult and protracted negotiation with the North Koreans.

Above all, the U.S. response was guided by a determination to prevent the nightmare of nuclear destruction threatened by the North Korean program. The U.S. officials involved in negotiating the Agreed Framework shared a fundamental commitment to advancing the nation’s security. None would have advocated support for any accord that did not meet a simple test: would Americans be safer with the Agreed Framework than without it? As public servants, a decade ago we answered that question in favor of the Agreed Framework. As authors today, we reach the same conclusion.

That the same question—will Americans be safer or not?—should guide the evaluation of any proposed U.S. response to the renewed nuclear threat in Korea. If grounded in a policy that forces North Korea to choose between a path of compliance with—or defiance of—the global norm against nuclear weapons proliferation, that question can bring the world to a safer future. North Korea will only be forced to make that choice if the path of defiance inexorably brings pressure that threatens the continued viability of the Kim Jong Il regime, while the path of compliance offers the regime the security assurances and improved relations with the international community that it seeks. We wish those entrusted with our national security well as they make the fateful choices that will shape the outcome of the current crisis. The stakes could not be higher.



Joel S. Wit, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, served as the State Department coordinator for the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework. Daniel Poneman, a principal at the Scowcroft Group, was a member of the National Security Council from 1990-1996, including three years (1993-1996) as senior director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls. Robert Gallucci, currently dean of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, was the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea in 1993 and 1994. From 1998-2001, Ambassador Gallucci held the position of special envoy to deal with the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.