Are North Korea and the United States moving toward the brink of war, perhaps one that would involve the use of nuclear weapons? Some experts think so. Former Defense Secretary William Perry, for one, has warned that the United States and North Korea are drifting toward war. Yet President Bush acts as though he has all the time in the world to resolve the current crisis, for whose perpetuation and intensification his administration is largely responsible.
The Agreed Framework
Shortly after entering the White House, President Bush announced that he had no plans for a quick resumption of the arms control talks with North Korea that had been initiated by his father and continued by the Clinton administration. Those talks produced an agreement in 1994, the so-called Agreed Framework, which required the North Koreans to freeze their nuclear activities in exchange for U.S. economic assistance and the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries.
But the inducements to North Korea that were promised by the Clinton administration in the Agreed Framework were slow in coming or were never realizedfacts little noted in the U.S. media reports on the North Korean problem. The lifting of U.S. trade sanctions that was supposed to have been completed by January 1995 was delayed until June 2000. Partly because of Republican foot-dragging in Congress, the construction of two promised 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactorsimpractical for making nuclear weapons but vital to meet the North’s energy needsfell far behind schedule. The heavy fuel oil shipments meant to replace electricity lost from North Korea’s shut-down Yongbyon nuclear reactor were also delayed freqently. In addition, the Agreed Framework’s promise to upgrade U.S.-North Korean relations to the ambassadorial level was not fulfilled. By contrast, at a North-South Korea summit in June 1999, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands established relations with Pyongyang.
Angered at Clinton’s fickle implementation of the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans reacted with military pressure. In 1998 they launched a missile that flew over Japan. The Clinton administration got the message. During the following year, it ended the U.S. ban on trade with North Korea in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on missile tests. U.S.-North Korean relations rapidly thawed in the wake of that agreement. Shortly before the Clinton administration left office, the two parties came close to concluding an agreement that would have required the North Koreans to abandon their long-range missile development and export programs in exchange for food, clothing and energy, and the establishment of full diplomatic relations, as promised in the 1994 Agreed Framework. But the constitutional crisis created by the disputed 2000 presidential election prompted Clinton to put North Korea on the back burner.
The Bush Administration Takes Over
After the disputed election was decided in Bush’s favor, Clinton tried to persuade the new president to complete the agreement with the North Koreans. But Bush was not interested. Instead of pursuing the breakthrough for which Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel had waited for almost 50 years, Bush broke off the talks. The president asserted that the North Koreans were not allowing adequate inspection of their closed nuclear installations for the purpose of verifying their compliance with their nuclear moratorium. The result was a freeze in U.S.-North Korean relations that lasted almost two years.
Even though North Korea has not supported terrorist activities for at least 15 years and renounced international terrorism in 2000, President Bush antagonized the North Koreans further, in his State of the Union Address in January 2002, by calling North Korea one of three terrorist countries comprising an axis of evil.
Yet North Korea is not a crazed rogue nation so much as a failed state. In an attempt to recover from its massive economic problems, it is trying to reverse 50 years of isolation to obtain economic aid from the West, particularly the United States.
To be sure, the North Koreans have sold nuclear technology and missiles to other countries, primarily to earn desperately needed foreign exchange. They have stated repeatedly that they were willing to abandon those sales if the West delivered the promised economic assistance.
The North Koreans were also unnerved by the announcement of the Bush Doctrinethat is, the policy that defense against terror entails attacking countries that provide safe havens to terrorists as well as preventive wars against states that are potential threats to the United States. Particularly ominous to them was the policy’s call for the possible pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against rogue countries with the capacity to threaten the United States. The Bush Doctrine was given additional weight by the administration’s plan to create new nuclear weapons designed to destroy deeply buried targets, like the nuclear storage installations North Korea is believed to have.
The Bush administration also refused to implement the Agreed Framework’s provision requiring the United States to refrain from threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons. To the North Koreans, the implication of Bush administration policy was clear: North Korea could be next on the American hit list after Bush had disposed of Iraq.
When talks between the North Koreans and the United States finally took place in October 2002, they almost immediately broke down. The North Koreans admitted to James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, that they had resumed work on their uranium enrichment program. To the Bush administration, the admission was proof positive that the North Koreans could not be trusted.
Administration officials failed to mention, however, that the president previously had rejected a North Korean offer to terminate their uranium enrichment program in return for a peace agreement and normalized relations with the United States. Instead, in December 2002 the administration wiped out what was left of the Agreed Framework by halting fuel oil shipments to North Korea.
In response to the complete breakdown of the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans gave the Americans a demonstration of how much trouble they could cause. On Feb. 24, 2003, they test-fired an anti-ship missile off their eastern coast, in the process rattling the inauguration of the new South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun. They also threatened to abandon the armistice that ended the fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.
A Growing Nuclear Threat
Particularly alarming are the steps the North Koreans are taking to produce nuclear weapons. In January 2003, they expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors and announced that they were withdrawing immediately from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits North Korea from building nuclear weapons. In late February of that year, they also restarted the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which had been shut down since 1994. The North Koreans also began preparations to start up a neighboring reprocessing plant capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.
As if a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons were not ominous enough, in February 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage warned Congress that the North Koreans also could sell plutonium to a nonstate actor or a rogue state, such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria or Al Qaeda. The North Koreans already had provided assistance to the missile development programs of Pakistan and Iran, thereby helping those countries acquire delivery systems for nuclear warheads.
Reacting to Pyongyang’s moves, the Bush administration has applied two sticks but offered little in the way of carrots. On the diplomatic side, it has tried to bring high-level international pressure on Pyongyang by bringing Russia, South Korea, Japan and China, along with North Korea and the United States, into multilateral talks designed to push the North Koreans to eliminate their nuclear weapons program.
The second stick that the Bush administration has applied to the North Koreans is a military one. U.S. air and naval forces in the western Pacific were reinforced last year, leading some to suspect that the administration would attack North Korea’s nuclear installations if the North Koreans persisted in building a nuclear weapon arsenal. Such a move, needless to say, could provoke North Korea to retaliate by attacking South Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops are deployed, possibly with nuclear weapons. The loss in civilian lives could be enormous.
Ending the North Korean Crisis
More than a few foreign affairs experts, however, believe that direct talks with the North Koreans are a much better alternative to a U.S. military strike. One is General Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser for the first President Bush. We cannot afford to defer this issue, he wrote. If you won’t talk to them, you won’t get a freeze on their nuclear program.
It is advice the Bush administration has refused to accept. Instead, it insists that engaging in bilateral talks with the North Koreans before they halt their nuclear activities is tantamount to yielding to nuclear blackmail. The administration contends, moreover, that several nations acting together can be more effective in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program than the United States acting alone. But after three rounds of the multilateral talks, which began last year, the stalemate persists.
The Bush administration maintains that it is willing to discuss various steps, including possible incentives, but not as preconditions for talks. And it has flatly turned down Chinese and South Korean suggestions to be more flexible in dealing with the North Koreans. As a result, while the diplomatic stalemate continues, so, too, does the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the C.I.A. has estimated that the North Koreans already may have produced six to eight nuclear weapons.
Clearly it is time for the Bush administration to admit that its North Korean strategy has not succeeded. If it is serious about ending the North Korean nuclear threat, it has to go much further than it has done toward satisfying North Korea’s prerequisites for denuclearizing.
The administration should begin by announcing that it is willing to begin bilateral talks with the North Koreans in return for an immediate freeze of their nuclear weapon activities. It should also declare that the United States is prepared to offer North Korea meaningful economic assistance, a security guaranty and normalized diplomatic relations in return for the verified elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. These U.S. concessions can, and should, be made in incremental steps geared to North Korea’s progress in returning to the ranks of the nonnuclear-weapon states. But as in so many other casesincluding Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflictdiplomacy has not been the administration’s favored method for dealing with international problems. Yet in the absence of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean talks, President Bush will be faced with only two options: allow North Korea to become a nuclear-weapon state or take military action to prevent it.
With the neoconservative hawks more firmly in the saddle than ever, is there any doubt which option they will be pressing the president to choose?