President George W. Bush gets little credit in Washington these days, but he did achieve one major accomplishment in Asia: He resisted pressure from the Republican Right to confront China. U.S. cooperation with China and maintenance of U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are the pillars of future security in Asia. Contrary to popular wisdom, these are the primary U.S. equities in the region; what happens in and to North Korea is secondary.
That said, uncontrolled North Korean nuclear and missile programs will shake these pillars. They will generate demands that China do more to bring the DPRK to its knees, if not compel its collapse, which Beijing does not judge to be in its interest. Such pressure will hardly advance U.S. cooperation with China. They will also sow further doubts in Tokyo and Seoul about relying on Washington for security. A Japan that acts more independently of the United States under its newly elected government will move to accommodate China. It should be encouraged to. But if Japan’s rivalry with China heats up nonetheless, it could rekindle its interest in nuclear weapons. That would raise alarms in South Korea, perhaps stimulating Seoul’s own interest in nuclear arms. None of these outcomes would benefit U.S. security.
That is why the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula matters. On its own terms, it is an issue of but modest import, but its capacity to roil U.S. interests with the region’s major players makes it a high priority. That is why President Bush authorized bilateral talks with North Korea within three weeks of Pyongyang’s October 2006 nuclear test, and why President Obama `approved former President Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang in August.
So far, the nuclear issue is sub-critical. North Korea has not restarted its reactor to produce more plutonium or armed its missiles with nuclear warheads, a development that would require it to conduct another nuclear test or two, as well as test-launches of its medium- and long-range missiles. As we know from experience, however, the DPRK could move to take these steps. So the top priority is to keep North Korea from doing so. The Obama Administration’s current course, unfortunately, will not achieve that goal.
The Administration has successfully mustered a coalition of states to contain and isolate North Korea. Tougher sanctions and inspections of suspect shipments may impede proliferation, but they will not stop North Korea from making more fissile material or conducting more nuclear and missile tests. Quite the contrary, such actions, which Pyongyang regards as evidence of continued U.S. hostility, will only provoke further arming. They will also strengthen Kim Jong-il’s legitimacy, which rests on asserting Korea’s sovereignty and his willingness to stand up to all the powers in the region.
Isolation and containment concede not only that North Korea remains nuclear-armed but also that its weapons programs run free. Disengagement also misses an opportunity to encourage positive internal change during the leadership transition in Pyongyang, which, despite the apparent improvement in the Dear Leader’s health, is currently underway.
To roll back the North’s nuclear and missile efforts and change its behavior, Washington needs to resume negotiations, bilaterally if need be, and expand engagement with Pyongyang—the sooner, the better. Bill Clinton’s success in obtaining the release of the two American journalists has created an opening for doing just that.
For negotiations to succeed, however, U.S. policymakers need to learn the lessons of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea over the past two decades. Though much about the DPRK is uncertain, this much is known: Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, Pyongyang has demonstrated significant restraint in its nuclear and missile efforts over that period. Until now, the only way it had to make the fissile material it needed for nuclear weapons was to remove spent nuclear fuel rods from its reactor at Yongbyon and reprocess them to extract the plutonium. Yet North Korea stopped reprocessing in fall 1991, three years before it signed the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States, and it did not resume reprocessing until 2003. It stopped again in 2007 and did not resume until now. And it did not make enough fuel rods for more than a handful of weapons. Similarly, the only way for it to perfect missiles for delivering nuclear warheads on Japan or the United States is to keep testing them until they work with a modicum of reliability and accuracy. Yet, until 2006, it had conducted just two test launches of medium- or long-range missiles.
The timing of the North’s starts and stops in its nuclear effort and its missile tests over the past two decades suggests that it has pursued a two-edged strategy to ease its insecurity: on the one hand, arm to deter the threat of attack; on the other, refrain from arming as inducement for a fundamentally new political, economic and strategic relationship with the United States. We do not know if that remains its strategy. We need to find out.
Pyongyang says that as long as Washington remains its foe, it feels threatened and will acquire nuclear weapons and missiles to counter that threat. But if Washington, along with Seoul and Tokyo, moves to reconcile, it will no longer feel threatened and will not need these weapons.
Does Pyongyang mean what it says? Many observers doubt it, but the fact is that, with the possible exception of Kim Jong-il himself, nobody knows. Again, we need to find out. And we need to find out exactly what he wants in return. The only way to do that is to probe through sustained diplomatic give-and-take, offering the DPRK meaningful steps toward a new political, economic and strategic relationship in return for steps toward verified denuclearization. All the speculation that Kim will never give up his nuclear arms only encourages him to think he won’t have to. Worse, it encourages our allies to think we are abandoning our goal of complete denuclearization.
A second major source of uncertainty is the future of the North Korean regime if Kim Jong-il should suddenly die or become incapacitated. Lack of evidence has not squelched speculation that something is amiss in the transition underway in Pyongyang. One thing is clear: Doubts about Kim Jong-il’s health make diplomatic give-and-take more urgent. Why take chances that his successor might be less able to make and keep a nuclear or missile deal, or control North Korea’s nuclear weapons and material? Managing or ignoring North Korea, as some in Washington favor, is not a prudent policy, especially if the North becomes inherently less manageable.
Why might Kim still be interested in a deal? For the past few years he has been promising his people a “strong and prosperous country” by 2012, the centenary of his father’s birth. Prosperity requires a political accommodation with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that would allow him to reallocate resources from military to civilian use and open the door to outside aid and investment. Although he claims that nuclear weapons have made his country strong, they do not make it secure. Only a demonstrated end to U.S., Japanese and South Korean enmity will do that. Until he is assured of that, he cannot afford to give up arming.
Instead of dealing with Pyongyang’s insecurity, Washington has repeatedly accused it of wrongdoing and tried to punish it. The crime-and-punishment approach has failed to build much trust or give either side much of a stake in living up to any agreement, leaving Kim Jong-il free to use his nuclear and missile leverage. And use that leverage he has. Whenever he believed the United States was not keeping its side of the bargain, he was all too quick to retaliate tit for tat: in 1998 by seeking the means to enrich uranium and by testing a longer-range Taepodong-1 missile; in 2003 by resuming his plutonium program and giving nuclear aid to Syria; in 2006 by test-launching a Taepodong-2, along with six other missiles, and by conducting a nuclear test; and in 2009 by test-launching Taepodong-2 technology in the guise of trying to put a satellite into orbit, and then conducting six more medium-range missile tests and a nuclear test. The lesson he learned from 1998, 2003, 2006 and 2009, but that Washington has not, is that we lack the leverage to force him to do what we want or to punish Pyongyang for its transgressions—and that we cannot be counted on to fulfill our side of agreements.
We need a new negotiating strategy that focuses sharply on the aim of reducing North Korea’s leverage while adding to our own. We can achieve this by easing its insecurity and expanding engagement with cultural, educational and scientific exchanges, and agricultural, energy and infrastructure aid. Aid can be provided bilaterally, multilaterally and through non-governmental organizations and international financial institutions. Deepening engagement is the only way to encourage change in North Korea. It is also our only way to enhance our potential leverage. For those reasons, some engagement and exchanges should be pursued unconditionally.
Pyongyang may be willing to trade away its plutonium, enrichment and missile programs brick by brick. Washington should be willing to offer it much more, in return for much more. That includes diplomatic recognition and an Obama-Kim summit meeting as the DPRK dismantles its fuel fabrication plant, reprocessing facility and reactor at Yongbyon and allows its plutonium declaration to be verified. It also includes the prompt start of a peace process with a declaration signed by the United States, North Korea, South Korea and China, in which Washington reaffirms it has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and formally commits itself to signing a peace treaty ending the Korean War when the North is nuclear-free. It also means commencing a regional security dialogue that puts the DPRK at the top table and eventually provides negative security assurances (a formal multilateral pledge not to introduce nuclear weapons into the Korea Peninsula or threaten it with nuclear or conventional attack) and other benefits to its security. Such a comprehensive set of actions, each of them linked to reciprocal steps by the North to denuclearize, would also give the United States its first real leverage: Washington could withhold or reverse these steps if, and only if, Pyongyang fails to follow through on commitments to give up its nuclear programs and arms.
In 2008 Japan and South Korea tried to prevent President Bush from negotiating with North Korea along these or any other lines. Will the allies go along now? Whatever their misgivings about U.S. diplomatic give-and-take with the DPRK, failing to constrain and reverse North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will only aggravate alliance relations over time, adding to Japanese and South Korean unease about relying on Washington for security. Allied unhappiness with our North Korea policy can best be addressed neither by deferring to their wishes nor by running roughshod over them, but by frank and thorough consultation. That means having serious discussions not only about our negotiating proposals, but also about their security needs as long as North Korea remains nuclear-armed. Above all, it means making clear to our allies that we will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and that we remain committed to our goal of complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Rollback of North Korea’s nuclear arming, not containment, is needed for Asia’s security, and that goal calls for sustained engagement. We’ve tried almost everything else and shown that it doesn’t work. We need to go “all in” diplomatically. If we do, we may discover that genuine engagement will ultimately bring about the changes we desire.