U.S. presidents have struggled with the challenges posed by a hostile North Korea since the end of the Korean War and with the dangers of a nuclear North since the mid-1980s. The diplomatic struggle over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program has had many ups and downs, from the near outbreak of a second war in 1994 to an agreement a few months later to end the nuclear program, from the prospect of a visit to Pyongyang by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to the breakdown of the 1994 agreement in 2002 and the North Korean nuclear test in 2006, from limited arrangements over the past few years that have constrained Pyongyang's plutonium production program to recent disputes over verification.
For the new Obama administration, the imperatives remain the same. Ending the North Korean threat would cut off a global source of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology, prevent an erosion of the nonproliferation regime that could trigger the acquisition of such weapons by other countries in East Asia, and provide a political boost to international efforts to stop the spread of dangerous technologies. In a regional context, ending the threat posed by Pyongyang would make U.S. allies and forces safer. How the United States copes with the North Korean challenge could also have important political ramifications for U.S. efforts to maintain close relations with Japan and South Korea, build better ties with China, and keep a strong U.S. presence in the region. Failure could undermine those efforts. Success would bolster them.
Solving the North Korean problem, however, is much more difficult now than eight years ago when the last presidential transition took place. After quadrupling its fissile material stockpile, conducting its first nuclear test, building new missiles, and withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Pyongyang has embarked on a gambit to secure better relations with Washington while holding on to its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, that objective seemed feasible to Pyongyang even before the recent U.S. deal with India that essentially traded acceptance of India's nuclear status for better relations. Pyongyang seeks to trade the aging Yongbyon plutonium-production facility for normal relations while constructing a diplomatic firewall around its nuclear weapons stockpile by insisting on an end to "hostile relations" between the U.S. and North Korea before denuclearization. That strategy is becoming even more painfully apparent with the North's recent statements that begin to sketch out a new path into the future-that if hostile relations are not ended, its nuclear disarmament will be tied to the disarmament of other nuclear powers in the six-party talks-as well as the need for the verifiable end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and reciprocity in ensuring South Korea is denuclearized as well.
The challenge is also more difficult today because the potential for instability in the North seems greater. With the recent illness of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, there appears to be a real possibility that negotiating with Pyongyang could become much tougher in the absence of one strong hand on the diplomatic steering wheel. Moreover, there is the prospect that North Korea could collapse, creating a political, security, humanitarian, and economic nightmare for the region. Part of that nightmare would be a loss of control by the North over its WMD stockpile, technology and work force.
Washington's coalition in opposition to a nuclear North, if it ever existed, is in tatters. Japan is unhappy with the United States over substance-agreements with Pyongyang that strike Tokyo as too conciliatory-and process-what Japan feels is a lack of serious consultations between allies. Although less disaffected, South Korea has concerns that the United States will eventually accept a nuclear North or veer to the other extreme and use "sticks" without sufficient consultation. Moreover, North-South relations, already at a low, will probably get worse in the near future, creating potential gaps between Washington and Seoul if a new U.S. administration pushes ahead with engaging Pyongyang. As for China and Russia, neither has proven to be as strong a supporter of the United States as the Bush administration had hoped.
Finally, the Bush policy of engaging North Korea has proven fragile. It is politically fragile because it is based solely on the nuclear negotiation. It has proven to be technically fragile because, contrary to the administration's assertions that reversal of disablement measures at Yongbyon would take a year, a more realistic estimate is that Pyongyang could begin to produce new bomb-making material in as little as two months.
The shortcomings of the Bush administration, however, have helped to create a centrist, bipartisan coalition that supports realistic, active diplomacy. That spectrum will be buttressed by larger Democratic majorities in Congress. This domestic support is likely to remain stable in the near term although recent statements by outgoing neoconservatives in the Bush administration emphasizing the North's alleged but unconstrained uranium-production program could be intended to lay the groundwork for further attacks on a pragmatic new U.S. policy. Support could also erode over time in light of skepticism about the North's intentions, the lack of significant progress in negotiations with Pyongyang, or new revelations about its past or present behavior, such as reports of more nuclear assistance to Syria or other countries.
Compounding the difficulty of ending the North Korean threat will be the magnitude of other domestic and foreign challenges facing a new administration. Those challenges may argue for adopting a warmed-over Bush approach of seeking very small steps forward because such a strategy requires a minimal commitment of bureaucratic, financial, and political resources. Such an approach, however, runs the serious risk of allowing Pyongyang to think that its strategy of playing for time can succeed and emboldening the North to grab opportunities for WMD exports. It also encourages the dangerous misperception among U.S. allies that Washington will indeed be willing to live with a nuclear North Korea.
Preserving progress made in negotiations over the past few years will be the first challenge facing the Obama administration. With the failure of the last six-party meeting involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to secure North Korea's written agreement on verification, the situation facing a new administration will be precarious and could lead to the unraveling of recent arrangements on disabling the Yongbyon nuclear facility. One approach to cope with that immediate challenge would be to negotiate a "bridging agreement" that not only resolves the verification disagreement but also pushes the disablement process forward. Of course, such an agreement will require Washington and the other six-party participants to provide the North with economic and perhaps political benefits in return.
Beyond preserving progress already made, the new administration should formulate its own approach designed to make North Korea understand that it has to choose between remaining a nuclear power and establishing normal relations with the United States. The top priority must be to secure, in as much detail and as quickly as possible, a clear path leading to North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. In order to have its best chance of achieving that objective, Washington will need to take a number of steps at home and abroad designed to improve its ability to formulate policy, to strengthen diplomatic support among key players, and to effectively engage Pyongyang.
The foundation of this strategy must be rebuilding a strong coalition in support of U.S. policy. Washington should restore the trilateral consultative process with Japan and South Korea that was so successful during the Clinton years, striking the right balance between taking into account the views of allies while never losing sight of the need to address the challenges posed by a nuclear North Korea even if that sometimes means taking steps despite Seoul and Tokyo. Second, it will mean building confidence in China. Although Beijing has been reluctant to use its leverage over the North because of concerns about destabilizing Pyongyang, the best way to enlist its support will be to demonstrate a commitment to diplomacy and to reject regime change in the North. That will place the United States in a tactically strong position if the time comes to enlist China in increasing pressure on North Korea.
Another critical step will be to establish proper bureaucratic arrangements. The new administration will not have the same divisions between "regime changers" and "engagers" that plagued its predecessor. Conducting effective diplomacy will require bringing into play U.S. political, technical, and financial resources as well as those of other countries; coping with a justifiable American preoccupation with other domestic and international challenges; and selling policy at home. Appointing a senior envoy with the clout to formulate and implement policy is essential.
The third key component of a new U.S. policy will be to launch a diplomatic offensive designed to crack the denuclearization nut. That will require using process and substance in new ways to advance U.S. interests while signaling to Pyongyang a willingness to address its political, security and economic concerns. Washington should not hesitate to deal directly with Pyongyang at whatever level is necessary, ranging from special envoys to the president. That does not mean rushing off to high-level encounters, but it does mean being ready to deploy the diplomatic card with maximum effect to move negotiations forward. A meeting between leaders, which will be a clear sign of Washington's peaceful intentions, should be possible but only under carefully orchestrated circumstances where significant progress has been made in demonstrating that Pyongyang is willing to move toward giving up its nuclear arsenal. Even with accelerated bilateral contacts, the six-party talks should continue as an important mechanism to build multilateral support for the denuclearization push.
Part of the U.S. offensive should also be to broaden the process of diplomatic engagement beyond the nuclear issue through establishing new venues for bilateral and multilateral negotiations. Such an approach would show Pyongyang that Washington is serious in pursuing better relations (at a price), and enable the two sides to address important issues not covered in the six-party talks. An additional objective should be to establish lines of communication with critical segments of the North Korean elite, particularly the military, which may play an even more important role in the post-Kim Jong Il North Korea. Potential initiatives include starting a peace process with the two Koreas and China to replace the armistice ending the Korean War as well as resuming cooperation between the U.S. and North Korean militaries in retrieving the remains of Americans killed or missing in action as a result of the Korean War.
Because preventing WMD exports is a key U.S. priority, Washington might seriously consider establishing a U.S.-North Korean nonproliferation dialogue. The purpose would be to secure results through elevating discussion beyond merely insisting that North Korea disclose past suspicious activities. Such a dialogue would seek immediate progress, perhaps by reaching a deal with the North to stop its ballistic missile exports. New allies could be enlisted. During the early 1990s, Israel was seriously interested in ending North Korean exports to the Middle East. The new dialogue could also help develop barriers against future nuclear exports through securing specific, detailed North Korean pledges and setting clear U.S. redlines. Moreover, export incentives might be dampened through measures such as redirecting North Korean nuclear scientists who because of denuclearization might otherwise turn their focus to exporting technology to earn hard currency.
All of these steps will help establish the right context for progress toward real denuclearization, but securing a concrete road map leading to the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons stockpile as soon as possible will require much more. Directly addressing Pyongyang's political, economic, and other demands, such as full normalization of relations and large-scale energy assistance, including the possible provision of new light-water reactors, will be essential to pin down the North. Even if Washington and the other participants in the six-party talks are willing to pay the steep price for success, there is no guarantee that Pyongyang will respond positively. That may be true also because North Korea will have to begin to address other U.S. concerns, such as the North's poor human rights record, that have nothing to do with denuclearization in order to make progress on the key normalization front.
Beyond these steps, the United States might consider new approaches to denuclearization. Washington could try to short-circuit the current slow-motion negotiating process by proposing that the North be allowed to reprocess its current batch of spent fuel rods as long as the one bomb's worth of plutonium separated from them is immediately shipped out of the country. Such a proposal conjures up all sorts of objections from possible North Korean cheating to allowing the North to restart a reprocessing plant that is currently disabled. Just as importantly, if not more, it would allow the United States to begin drawing down the North's plutonium inventory very quickly. Moreover, an initiative pursued jointly with the other nuclear powers in the talks, China and Russia, would make cheating even less likely. Whether the North would agree is unclear although the price would be high. The alternative, moving forward with constructing storage canisters for those rods and then shipping them out, could drag on for years.
Washington might also borrow from past experience. For example, as in U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations, phased reductions of the North's small stockpile, keyed to political, economic, and security steps taken by the other parties, could help gradually build confidence and trust. A more far-reaching option might be a Korean nuclear-free zone, building on the North-South Denuclearization Declaration concluded in the 1990s but never implemented, and guaranteed by the other six-parties states. That would address key North Korean concerns, such as the need for the appearance of a peninsula-wide solution and a political guarantee that nuclear weapons will not be reintroduced to the peninsula by the United States. Care would have to be taken to ensure that it excludes neighboring countries because the North may try to include Japan and avoids undermining security ties between the United States and South Korea. Finally, because verification issues will permeate future talks, Washington could take a page from experience with the Soviet Union: both Democrats and Republicans were willing to accept agreements in the U.S. interest even if monitoring provisions were less than perfect as long as cheating could be detected in time to protect the national interest.
Because the road to denuclearization is likely to be difficult, Washington will also need to stand ready with disincentives. Even though such measures by themselves are unlikely to convince North Korea to reverse course, they would communicate political resolve and demonstrate to Pyongyang the potential downsides of clinging to its weapons. The list of potential disincentives includes withholding promised benefits if the North does not meet its obligations, multilateral sanctions, and realistic redlines such as imposing severe penalties if Pyongyang exports nuclear weapons technology, fissile material, or the bombs themselves in the future. Finally, Washington will need to plan for failure and the possibility that Pyongyang will be unwilling to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Such a plan will clearly require political, military, and security countermeasures to be taken in concert with close allies and in consultation with China and Russia.
In short, the new administration could be in for a new, prolonged period of diplomatic warfare with North Korea. That warfare could start immediately because the Bush administration in its waning days has failed to complete its ongoing negotiations on verification. If and when those differences are resolved, the more important struggle over denuclearization will follow. That struggle is likely to prove difficult and protracted, requiring patience and flexibility.
Joel S. Wit is an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University's Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies and a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is a former official at the Department of State and co-author of Going Critical: The First North Korea Nuclear Crisis (2004).