Guide North Korea Away From The Brink
Guide North Korea Away From The Brink
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
North Korea Policy under the New South Korean President: More Continuity than Change
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Guide North Korea Away From The Brink

The highest priority for the new Bush national security team - right up there alongside Iraq and Israel-Palestine - must be to forge an effective policy toward North Korea, one that transcends Washington's internal divisions, focuses single-mindedly on the immediate nuclear proliferation crisis, and unites its negotiating partners, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

North Korea remains the least accessible, least understood and potentially most dangerous of the world's countries of concern. No one can be completely confident that it will ever accept a deal, however objectively reasonable, to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in return for security guarantees, comprehensive economic support and normalization of its international relations. But the only way to find out is to put such a deal on the table.

The Bush administration has steadfastly refused to do so over the last two years. This hard-nosed approach has proved worse than useless, with Pyongyang almost certainly having used the time to reprocess enough plutonium to increase its stock of nuclear weapons from two to as many as 10, and to advance a uranium enrichment program that will enable it to produce many more.

North Korea now has enough weapons not only to deter attack, but to sell to other states or terrorist groups. It must know that any such transfer would push to breaking point the military self-restraint of the United States - and maybe other countries as well - but such behavior cannot be ruled out. Nor can freelance activity by rogue groups within North Korea's military. The situation is on a dangerous knife-edge, with the stakes now higher than anywhere else, including Iran.

In his second term, President George W. Bush must change course. It's not a matter of bilateral rather than multilateral talks, as John Kerry rather oddly insisted during the campaign; there remains plenty of scope for direct engagement in the margins of the six-party talks. What is necessary is to put some real substance in the U.S. position, as America's South Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Russian regional negotiating partners have been urging.

Washington made a tentative start in the June 2004 talks, hinting - in an outline described to me by a State Department official as "impressionist rather than pointillist" - at what Pyongyang might expect if it gave up its weapons and programs. But it now has to go a lot further in filling in the detail. After consultation with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, the United States should make a bold new offer, laying out in detail what steps North Korea must take to dismantle its nuclear programs and exactly what security and economic benefits it stands to get in exchange. What is required is not a rough road map, but a very clear photograph of the destination.

That destination, and how to get there, have been fully described in a new International Crisis Group report published this week. It spells out an eight-stage process, backed by a credible threat of sanctions, at the end of which North Korea would have given up all its nuclear programs and weapons. In return it would have diplomatic relations with Japan, liaison offices with the United States, and a conditional multilateral security guarantee, and would be receiving significant energy assistance and aid from South Korea, Japan and the European Union.

Pyongyang would be in a position to move forward with full diplomatic relations with the United States, sign a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula, and develop full relations with international financial institutions. The perceived threats to its economic and military security would be significantly reduced, and a less paranoid regime could follow China and Vietnam in a gradual transition away from totalitarianism.

North Korea, on past evidence, is only likely to respond to a mix of attractive inducements backed by the threat of coercive measures. While military measures, however unpalatable, cannot be entirely forsworn, the threat of sharply focused sanctions remains the key discipline. But these will need the cooperation of all the key regional neighbors to be effective.

The bottom line is that only a serious offer from the United States has a chance of being accepted by North Korea, and of putting the other parties in a position to increase pressure on it should a reasonable deal be rejected. And that will require much more being put on he table than has thus far been the case.

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