Of the several emerging nuclear threats in the world, the revival of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may be the most urgent and dangerous. Since late 2002, President George W. Bush has prudently maintained that he wants a “peaceful” and “diplomatic” solution to the crisis. There are no quick or easy military options.
But U.S. diplomacy has been ineffectual. Bush’s foreign policy principals have bickered over strategy. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has only fueled North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s security fears. Under pressure from allies anxious about North Korea’s ongoing nuclear activities, Bush has at last authorized a detailed and practical proposal. Negotiators must now get down to work and make up for lost time.
Unveiled at the fourth and latest round of multilateral talks in Beijing, the U.S. proposal is designed to reimpose a freeze of the North’s nuclear program and open the way toward verifiable dismantlement of its facilities and toward better U.S.-North Korean relations.
The U.S. plan would require North Korea to agree in writing to disclose and dismantle its programs and give it three months to seal all of its nuclear facilities. In exchange, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea would begin supplying fuel oil to the North. Meanwhile, the United States would extend a provisional security guarantee not to attack or overthrow the regime in Pyongyang.
If North Korea then admits inspectors to key sites and allows its nuclear weapons-related facilities to be dismantled, the United States would engage in bilateral talks on removing it from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, eliminating U.S. sanctions, and providing greater international economic assistance.
The proposal represents a major shift away from the administration’s earlier and more confrontational North Korea policy. Three years ago, Bush announced he would discontinue direct talks and denounced North Korea as part of an “axis of evil.” North Korea’s secret efforts to acquire uranium-enrichment capabilities and the U.S.-led decision to cut off fuel aid worsened the situation. In late 2002, Pyongyang ejected international arms inspectors and, in January 2003, announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Since then, North Korea has most assuredly resumed plutonium production for weapons. It could already be the world’s ninth nuclear-weapon state and become a potential exporter of nuclear arms and material.
With savvy and energetic U.S. and allied diplomacy, this nightmare scenario might still be avoided. The administration’s new proposal is a good start. The White House has at last recognized the importance of offering North Korea political and economic inducements to give up its nuclear pursuits. By offering a nonaggression pledge conditioned on further progress, the White House has given Kim an alternative to the nuclear weapons program North Korea says is necessary to deter U.S. aggression, but which would seriously destabilize the region.
There will be more difficulties ahead, and the next few weeks are critical. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell must fend off administration hard-liners who may try to scuttle a deal in the false hope that the Pyongyang regime will soon collapse and that its nuclear and missile programs can be contained through economic sanctions and interdictions.
In Beijing, Kim’s representatives called the U.S. offer “constructive” and asked for time to evaluate it. The North Koreans have also made their own offer: to freeze and eventually dismantle their nuclear programs if provided with energy equivalent to a quarter of their annual production. To achieve a deal they also must be more flexible and forthcoming about their nuclear activities.
Unfortunately, the Pyongyang regime still refuses to clear up charges that it is also pursuing uranium enrichment for weapons. The existence of the effort is more certain as details of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s illegal nuclear supplier network have come to light. Though it represents a less urgent weapons threat than the plutonium facilities at Yongbyon, North Korea’s still-to-be-detailed uranium-enrichment project must be eliminated. By agreeing to call it a research program, negotiators might provide North Korea a face-saving way to reveal and dismantle any uranium activities.
At the same time, the Bush administration must accelerate the pace of negotiations with North Korea by pursuing immediate follow-up discussions. Bush must also give U.S. envoy James Kelly enough room to engage in the genuine give-and-take on timelines and inspection procedures necessary to secure a deal. The more time passes without inspectors on the ground to verify a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, the more its nuclear capabilities likely increase.
With serious proposals to end North Korea’s nuclear programs finally in play, leaders in Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo must continue to use the six-party format to press the United States and North Korea to make tangible progress. With high-level White House attention and a genuine commitment to eliminate Pyongyang’s stated motives to go nuclear, the United States may still be able to stop a new Asian nuclear arms race before it starts.