Nearly one year has passed since the last round of six-party talks between North Korea and the United States and four other Asian powers, designed to contain and reverse Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. With the prospects for dialogue fading and North Korea's capabilities growing, it is time for a new and more effective diplomatic strategy that has the full support of regional allies, keeps North Korea at the negotiating table, and begins to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Since ejecting international inspectors in 2002 and restarting its plutonium operations in 2003, North Korea is believed to have separated enough plutonium for as many as six bombs. In recent weeks, North Korea has shut down its reactor at Yongbyon to harvest a new batch of plutonium.
Now, some U.S. intelligence assessments suggest North Korea may be preparing to conduct a demonstration nuclear test explosion. A test would certainly dispel doubts about North Korea's capabilities, but it could precipitate military confrontation and lead other states to rethink their non-nuclear weapons status. An already dangerous situation would become a disaster.
Despite a failed policy, the Bush administration still insists that tough talk and pressure from China will convince Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table and agree to U.S. terms for disarmament. Not surprisingly, North Korea's insecure and isolated leaders have responded with a series of provocative statements and actions. After Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described North Korea as an "outpost of tyranny," North Korean officials made their most explicit claim about having "manufactured nukes."
Rather than changing course, the latest responses from Washington range from inadequate to impractical to imprudent. Some Bush officials try to downplay the crisis and at the same time suggest that rumors of nuclear test preparations should motivate China to cut off energy aid to North Korea and compel Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table. Other "anonymous administration officials" float trial balloons in the news media about possible U.S. efforts to win UN Security Council support for a virtual quarantine of North Korea.
Understandably, U.S. allies and partners in the region are deeply concerned and are as impatient with the United States as they are with North Korea. China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea are urging North Korea to return to the multiparty talks and say that a nuclear test would result in strong punitive action. For now, however, China and South Korea are refusing to withhold economic and energy assistance to North Korea out of concern that it would worsen prospects for a peaceful solution.
Leaders in Beijing and Seoul also recognize that, before they exert their last bits of leverage on North Korea, the United States needs to demonstrate greater flexibility to give the next and perhaps last six-party meeting a chance. As former U.S. special envoy on North Korea Charles Pritchard told The Boston Globe, "You have got to explore the possibility of real dialogue before you declare failure. We haven't yet made a good faith effort."
Clearly, China and other states have a vital role to play. But if there still is a chance for diplomacy to work—and there is—it is the United States and North Korea that will ultimately have to strike a deal.
For instance, the White House should drop its long-standing policy not to negotiate directly with North Korea within or even outside the six-party process. Although multiparty talks can deliver maximum international leverage, progress should not be held hostage to process.
Fortunately, the administration may already be moving in this direction. On May 13, U.S. special envoy Joseph Ditrani and North Korea's UN ambassador quietly held direct "working level" talks in New York.
Further meetings, however, will do little in the absence of a realistic U.S. negotiating strategy. Diplomats on all sides must be authorized to go beyond fixed talking points and earlier positions. The last U.S. offer calls for North Korea to disarm before it would get firm security guarantees and economic assistance. North Korea demands the delivery of aid and security assurances first, to be followed by a suspension of some of its nuclear activities. Instead, the two sides should reconsider South Korea's 2004 three-phase plan of corresponding positive incentives in return for the verifiable dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear capabilities following a clear timetable.
To maintain progress, regional powers, including China, must do their part and make clear that, if North Korea's deviates from any agreed deal, they are prepared to impose uncompromising economic and political pressure.
President George W. Bush is fond of noting that the "consensus among nations that proliferation cannot be tolerated...means little unless it is translated into action." Now is the time for meaningful action, before it is too late.