"Getting Serious" About North Korea

Daryl G. Kimball

Despite the breakthrough agreement in September on a Joint Statement of Principles outlining a series of action-for-action steps to denuclearize North Korea in a verifiable manner, the main antagonists are again at odds over the substance and sequencing of the deal.

Following an unproductive round of six-party talks last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on North Korea to “get serious” about dismantling its nuclear program. North Korea, however, insists that the United States must act first before it freezes and then dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Enough already. To break the cycle and test Pyongyang’s seriousness, President George W. Bush should borrow a page from his father’s playbook: unilateral, reciprocal actions that demonstrate the good faith of both sides and improve the likelihood of success.

Fourteen years ago, North Korea and South Korea were at odds over an agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. To help break the impasse, the first Bush administration decided in late 1991 to remove U.S. tactical nuclear warheads from the peninsula. On December 31 of that year, the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed.

Unfortunately, the rules and methods for verification were left for later, and North Korea resisted calls for international inspections. A year later and after considerable internal debate, officials in the George H. W. Bush administration decided to take a second, bold, but low-cost step: it temporarily suspended the annual “Team Spirit” military exercises with South Korea, prompting North Korea finally to announce it would allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Although the denuclearization agreement and the subsequent 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration ultimately fell apart, it was because leaders on each side failed to follow through on their baseline commitments through concrete action.

Today, following the 2002 disclosures about North Korea’s secret uranium-enrichment efforts and its ejection of inspectors in 2003, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States understand they must hammer out verification arrangements in advance. The task is to ensure that North Korea has frozen its nuclear material production activities, accounted for all of its plutonium, and dismantled any nuclear weapons it may have. Washington is reportedly preparing a list of sites that will be subject to intrusive monitoring, a list that the North will not easily accept.

Bush administration officials are urging North Korea to begin the disarmament process by suspending its plutonium separation operations at Yongbyon. Doing so would give both sides more diplomatic breathing space and restore the valuable plutonium production freeze established by the Agreed Framework.

Bush hard-liners, however, have not allowed U.S. negotiators to bargain with North Korea to achieve this result for fear that they appear to be pursuing Clinton’s past policy. That is counterproductive. Unless it reimposes a freeze, North Korea can continue to produce and perhaps to export nuclear bomb material.

For its part, North Korea has said it wants a light-water nuclear power reactor before it “dismantles its nuclear deterrent” and rejoins the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States has balked, saying it will be willing to discuss the civilian nuclear assistance at “an appropriate time.” That is the right stance for now. No state, whether it is India, Iran, North Korea, or South Korea should have access to such nuclear assistance if it is not in compliance with the NPT and does not allow for comprehensive safeguards.

But the nuclear reactor and sequencing issues should not be allowed to become deal-breakers. The United States and others should recognize that Pyongyang’s demand for reactors represents something more fundamental: the importance of tangible steps on the part of each side to show their good-faith commitment to terms of the Joint Statement.

North Korea is particularly interested in steps that recognize its sovereignty and provide assurances against attack. A North Korean government editorial published Oct. 26 by the state-run news agency urges the United States “to show…a practical action to remove mistrust and hostility between the two sides and create an atmosphere of confidence.”

To overcome present-day hurdles, the United States could announce it will cancel the next round of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which continue to rile the North Korean regime. If North Korea reciprocates by suspending activities at Yongbyon, the United States might also pledge to withdraw some of its strike aircraft from the region to demonstrate its commitment to its pledge in the Joint Statement that it has no intention to attack or invade the North.

The opportunity for progress through the six-party process may be fleeting. All sides, especially the United States and North Korea, must be willing to undertake the bold and necessary steps to keep the diplomatic process moving, reduce longstanding tension, and prevent the emergence of a ninth nuclear-armed state.