An appropriate policy toward North Korea should quarantine and limit the threat the state can pose to the United States and its allies. U.S. diplomacy, properly conceived, should always have had two goals. First, to offer — in good faith — a genuine opportunity for the North to make a constructive strategic choice for the future. Second, to strengthen U.S. and allied ability (political as well as military) to defend themselves if the North made a different choice.
Some people tend to emphasize only the diplomatic track; others only emphasize the defensive measures. The key point, which former Secretary Rice and former Deputy Secretary Zoellick understood very well, was that the first track is a necessary enabler for the second one. So in 2005, the United States reinvigorated the Six Party process to make the first track real. And in 2005, the United States took steps that effectively destroyed a Chinese bank in Macau, the Banco Delta Asia, illustrating America’s readiness to pursue the other track as well.
This dual strategy heightened tension, culminating in North Korea’s nuclear test of 2006. Yet the international response in 2006 displayed unanimity and firmness that had not been seen since 1953, evident in UN Security Council resolution 1718. The result was a fresh diplomatic opening, a promising agreement in February 2007, and a further test of North Korean intentions, one so specific and unequivocal that the results were bound to be revealing.
North Korean behavior in 2007 was indeed revealing. Despite some great pictures for CNN, North Korea failed adequately to account for its past nuclear trade, including possible transfers of enriched uranium to Libya and possible transfers of nuclear fuel (as well as much other help) to Syria. Although the known plutonium production facility was temporarily disabled, possible uranium enrichment facilities remained. Of course, the possible Libyan and definite Syrian choices were made in the past. But it was (and is) essential for the United States and its allies to develop some reasonable understanding of how that proliferation path worked — and was funded — to have adequate confidence that the path is gone.
Thus, during 2007, the United States and its allies could conclude that they would not be able to achieve a critical, realistic objective: a verifiable cap on North Korea’s capacity to build nuclear weapons and produce weapons-usable nuclear material. Such a concrete objective would have been worth the candle — a good prelude to a further, comprehensive phase of Korean diplomacy that would include the attainment of complete denuclearization, as required by UNSC 1718 and as pledged by North Korea in 1992, 2005, and 2007. Attainment of even that preliminary objective was in even greater doubt, though, given the evidence of 2007.
Nonetheless, the United States helped construct a further agreement (Beijing, October 2007) to keep the diplomatic process afloat rather than move it to a new phase. Why? I don’t know. Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial listed me as first, ahead even of Chris Hill and Condi Rice, in persuading President Bush to make the October 2007 decision to keep that diplomatic track alive and take North Korea off the terror list. That rank ordering in supposed infamy is especially bizarre, since I had left the administration at the end of 2006. (Perhaps someone wanted to sling something at me because of my stance on terrorism issues, and this was the only available clod of mud.)
The pros and cons of the October 2007 decision are hard for me to judge. I’m certainly inclined to give President Bush and Secretary Rice the benefit of doubt. Perhaps the moves to destroy the plutonium facility seemed so encouraging; the uranium enrichment concerns seemed wispy; and forcing the North to admit a past it could not acknowledge would seem merely backward-looking and punitive, rather than future-oriented and constructive.
Yet there were large downsides of keeping the process afloat with the October 2007 Beijing agreement, and they grew, especially as the Beijing agreement proved hollow. The uranium enrichment issues had been spotlighted by the new evidence on Libya and Syria ties and did not seem to be getting addressed. The coalition-building benefits with South Korea were diminishing, especially as the South Korean people repudiated the policy direction of the late president Roh Moo-hyun. The already-strained relations with Japan had to carry a heavier burden of mistrust. The bonds with China remained strong, but there was a danger of short-sightedness. As China effectively took on more responsibility as North Korea’s protector and guarantor in the diplomacy, Chinese action or inaction on this topic could become another potential issue in an utterly vital connection: Chinese relations with Japan.
In any case, the United States definitely went the extra mile in its diplomacy. Now Washington can credibly offer coalition leadership in developing appropriate defensive measures of all kinds.
1. Sanctions? It would be nice to enforce fully the ones already on the books in UNSC 1718.
2. Instead what is needed is international action by interested parties to redress the violation of UNSC 1718 with suitable defensive measures under Chapter VII. Either the UN should expressly authorize that, or note that this will happen, or the Security Council should remain silent. It set the international norm in 2006 and did so under Chapter VII. The norm has been violated. Unless a further resolution is suitably empowering, silence might be best. The Security Council should not limit what can be done by specifying it.
3. The United States must now treat the North Koreans as having crossed the "red line" of proliferating nuclear material and, based on our analysis of how they did this, do everything possible to disable this capability.
4. Also, as I wrote in this space a few months ago, the United States should take necessary preparations with its allies to limit North Korean development of the ballistic missiles they could marry with their nuclear (or biological or chemical) payloads.
5. Keep in mind that all of this is a curtain-raiser for the Obama administration’s still too-be-determined policy on Iran.
Certainly any measure that confronts North Korea carries risks of escalation. The North Korean government made the decision to act beyond its borders. The United States should prepare with its allies to address these risks. Evidence of that preparation is the best way to reduce the risk. And our Chinese and Russian friends can judge for themselves how best to manage the risks they see arising from this cancer across the Yalu.