Ending North Korea’s Endless Nuclear Drama

The best chance to curb Kim Jong Il's worst behavior is to think outside the box. Way outside.

North Korea never fails to bring out the worst in American policymaking. The U.S. response to Kim Jong Il’s antics invariably starts with indignant flailing around and ends with the resumption of negotiations. The recent missile launch has produced the usual rhetoric of officialdom: there will be consequences, they must be punished, we will not tolerate, we need a tough resolution, Iran is watching.

North Korea’s behavior warrants a stern response. Coming up with one is another matter.

The U.S. frustration in dealing with this pitiful but troublesome state arises from two factors. First, Washington has been polarized over the nuclear issue since the 1994 Agreed Framework, which provided for the freezing and ultimate dismantlement of North Korea’s plutonium facilities in exchange for light water reactors and ultimate normalization of relations. Indeed, the last administration fought its own civil war over policy toward North Korea. It is politically dangerous in Washington to be soft on such a terrible country. Many opponents of negotiations consider it immoral to bribe the cheating Pyongyang, even though bribery — conditionality if one prefers — is a diplomatic tool often used effectively by the United States. Just look at Iraq.

Second, the United States and its allies have had serious disagreements over North Korea. Japan is prepared to obstruct negotiations until Pyongyang comes clean on the handful of Japanese kidnapped by the North some 30 years ago. The Chinese have wanted to moderate and ultimately change North Korea through reform and sizable economic support, but have little to show for it. Many of the cognoscenti see China as the ultimate arbiter compelling North Korean cooperation. That, of course, has not happened. China has its own interest — keeping North Korea afloat — and that’s not likely to change. The U.S. and Chinese economies are now so enmeshed that U.S. leverage on China is very limited. South Korea’s sunshine policy, which provided large-scale aid in hopes of ultimately seducing North Korea, was despised by the Bush administration. (Ironically, a new South Korean government abandoned the policy just as the United States was softening its approach to the North.)

Given the extent of these differences, the Obama administration understandably has focused first on restoring alliance cohesion. But inevitably, the United States finds itself drawn back to negotiations, even after Pyongyang has escalated its weapons programs. Why?

Simple. Negotiating has made some modest progress, and it is the only realistic option. Seoul remains hostage to North Korean guns. Severe tensions can aggravate South Korea’s deep economic distress. And they create a major headache for the United States. Waiting for the regime to fall or malign neglect, however psychologically pleasing, would lead to North Korea again elevating tensions.

The question now is how to get back to talks. The best way politically is some mild U.N. Security Council resolution that would be sufficient to get the parties to eventually return to the table. If that succeeds, what next?

The U.S. administration seems content to resume six-party talks where they left off: completing the phase two agreement, exchanging fuel oil for disablement of the North’s plutonium facilities, and an agreement on verification, the sticking point precipitating the breakdown of negotiations. Preventing North Korea from producing more fissile material makes sense. From there, the going gets increasingly tough.

The weight of evidence suggests that North Korea will be unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons for a long time, if ever. The apparent North Korean interest in trading the dismantling of its plutonium facilities for light water reactors will not likely go down well in Washington. It is not much of a deal. (This deal was discussed informally with visiting American groups by senior North Korean officials, including my group.)

Nuclear weapons are Kim Jong Il’s trump card. They get international attention. If U.S. President Barack Obama wants to make real progress on denuclearization, he must take a more comprehensive approach with North Korea under the umbrella of the six-party talks. In addition to pursuing denuclearization, he should opt for a radical change in relations: a peace treaty for the peninsula, the normalization of all political and economic relations, and a big economic package for the North, including increasing integration into the global economy. Only a major improvement in its overall situation might lead North Korea to consider some change in course and give up its nuclear weapons.

There are, of course, difficulties and downsides. Heavy opposition in Washington might not be worth the cost of a highly uncertain, radically different approach. It could also be unacceptable to both South Korea and Japan, which are not eager to offer goodies to Pyongyang that might not be reciprocated. North Korea’s opaqueness raises verification problems, which may be impossible to work out. And Kim Jong Il might simply not be interested in such a big-bang deal.

But without an approach like this, you can bank on endless, fruitless negotiations. Going down today’s six-party route will also require the United States to shore up its deterrence in the area, particularly for Japan, and strengthen the antiproliferation initiative to guard against North Korean nuclear and missile exports. Enlarging the framework of negotiations looks like the only serious way of achieving a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Doing so will require lots of patience, intensive alliance management, and internal political risk with no certain result. But it’s worth a shot. At a minimum, having such a package out there may be of some help should the Dear Leader depart the scene.

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