For Immediate Release: January 3, 2003
(Washington, D.C.)—A decade ago, North Korea challenged the nuclear nonproliferation regime by pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of its treaty commitments. Pyongyang is once again breaking its commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as well as the 1994 Agreed Framework,
which defused the earlier crisis.
North Korea’s provocative expulsion this week of international arms inspectors and preparations to resume operation of its nuclear reactor, along with its related facilities, is a more serious and urgent proliferation threat than that posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities, particularly since international arms inspectors are now working in Iraq. The North Korean situation demands a concerted and immediate diplomatic initiative led by the United States in coordination with other countries in the region.
Because pre-emptive military action against North Korea would likely lead to a devastating conventional war, and since a nuclear-armed North Korea would undermine regional security, the Bush administration must engage in tough, direct diplomacy with Pyongyang. For two years, the Bush administration has failed to engage in meaningful talks with North Korea on steps to implement earlier denuclearization agreements and to permanently and verifiably end North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
Complicating matters, the Bush administration stoked North Korean fears that it might be the target of a pre-emptive strike when President Bush named it part of an “axis of evil” and when the Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review which listed a war with North Korea as one of the contingencies that the United States must be prepared to possibly use nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has cited these actions as evidence that the United States has reneged on its 1994 pledge to pursue normalized relations and to refrain from threatening the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea. Although the Bush administration has recently said that it has no intention of attacking North Korea, the administration has sent inconsistent signals to Pyongyang.
Time is not on our side. The longer the Bush administration refuses to engage in direct, formal, high-level discussions with North Korea, the closer North Korea will move toward building a nuclear arsenal. North Korea, which may already have enough plutonium for two bombs, could separate additional plutonium for six bombs in six months.
Bush officials say they will not give in to “blackmail” by agreeing to negotiate with North Korea. Such an approach is based on the misconception that nuclear proliferation is inevitable and that it is fruitless to engage with North Korea to change its behavior. However, talking to the regime in Pyongyang is anything but acquiescence. By talking with North Korea, as the United States has done in the past and as South Korea and Japan are doing now, the United States would make it clear that it will not accept the entrance of a ninth state to the nuclear weapons club and that it is genuinely interested in seeking practical solutions to prevent such an outcome. Furthermore, only through preventative diplomacy and new, verifiable arms control measures, can the United States and the international community develop the tools by which we can ensure that North Korea does not again violate its disarmament commitments.
Refusing to talk with North Korea may be morally satisfying, but it will only make a bad situation worse. Since the United States announced North Korea’s admission that it has been pursuing uranium-enrichment capabilities, the leaders in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo decided to cut off heavy fuel oil shipments to the North that were promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Further attempts at isolation will likely provoke more destabilizing actions on the part of the Pyongyang regime, such as withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
North Korea’s continued, unchecked pursuit of nuclear weapons will create a highly dangerous situation that could spiral out of control and jeopardize regional and world security. Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s high-handed approach has helped contribute to the crisis and leaves it with no meaningful way to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Rather than hope that further economic isolation will persuade North Korea to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, the White House should encourage International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member states and the United Nations Security Council to call upon North Korea to end its nuclear weapons related activity. At the same time, the White House should initiate direct discussions with Pyongyang on issues of concern. Congressional leaders, such as Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and John Kerry (D-MA), and U.S. allies in Seoul and Tokyo agree on the need to engage in talks that produce new, verifiable agreements that can defuse the present crisis and eliminate the North’s nuclear capabilities.
The U.S. approach in these talks should be to link further energy assistance and aid to North Korea to visible evidence that the country’s recently revealed uranium-enrichment activities have ended and that it agrees to allow IAEA inspectors to verify that it is not trying to build nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies should offer practical proposals, such as formal nonaggression pledges, that could persuade the Pyongyang regime to roll back its nuclear and missile programs.
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The Arms Control Association is an independent, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies. Established in 1971,the Association publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.