Kim Jong Il’s Missiles

As Obama dithers, North Korea is only getting more dangerous. It's time to cut a deal.


During his recent trip to Asia, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as good as admitted that the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience on North Korea has failed. Despite Washington’s efforts to convince Pyongyang to alter its bad behavior through measures like sanctions, the danger has only grown. And now, just over the horizon — in addition to the potential threat of nuclear technology exports — Gates believes, we may be facing a North Korea able to fire nuclear-armed missiles at the United States. All of this, according to the secretary, means that, "There is some urgency to proceeding down the track of negotiations and engagement."

But wait. Even with the secretary’s tacit admission, whether there will be real movement toward diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang remains uncertain. Washington has been caught between its own fixation that the North show it is "serious" before negotiations even begin and a South Korea that still seems to be clinging to strategic patience. The result has been a Gordian knot of preconditions for resuming talks that even the most ardent expert would be hard-pressed to figure out.

Nevertheless, if all the parties somehow manage to cut this knot — and the announcement on Thursday of new North-South military talks may be a first step in doing so — Gates raises an important new issue: limiting North Korea’s missile program through negotiations, an idea that has disappeared from public view for more than a decade. It hasn’t been mentioned since Bill Clinton’s administration made serious progress in such talks during the late 1990s, resulting in a test moratorium and causing the president to seriously consider a trip to Pyongyang. During its eight years in office, George W. Bush’s administration never even considered continuing those discussions. Given the general deterioration in U.S.-North Korean relations and without the prospect of serious talks, Pyongyang ended the moratorium in 2006 and conducted long-range missile launches that year and in 2009.

It is unclear whether the secretary’s pronouncement that the North will have a limited capability to attack the west coast of the United States in five years is based on new intelligence. However, despite a long history of both private American groups and the U.S. intelligence community overestimating Pyongyang’s ability to strike the United States (to be sure, significant technical hurdles remain, such as the need to successfully test a three-stage missile and develop a heat shield to protect the nuclear warhead), the basic point is valid: Left unconstrained, the North may eventually overcome these obstacles and deploy long-range missiles. As a result, in the not-too-distant future, Kim Jong Il or his successor may be able to attack Alaska, Hawaii, and even the continental United States with nuclear weapons.

While Gates’s suggestion of moratoria on nuclear and missile testing would be an important first step — they would prevent the North from further miniaturizing its nuclear warheads and perfecting long-range delivery systems — much more will be need to be done if the Obama team is to seriously pursue negotiations. Drawing from its long experience in arms control talks with the Soviet Union and Russia, the United States will naturally want to pursue progressively tighter limits on Pyongyang’s program that include qualitative measures (flight-test bans to prevent further technological improvements) and quantitative ones (numerical restrictions including caps, reductions, and the elimination of certain missile types). And of course, verification measures, which may eventually include on-site inspections as restrictions become tighter, will be part of the mix.

But achieving results in missile talks with North Korea will be more complicated than that. Recognizing that South Korea, Japan, and other countries have peaceful space programs, the North will want to have its own program. No one is naïve enough to believe that boldly going where no North Korean has gone before is the main objective driving Pyongyang’s long-range missile effort, but the North is interested in space flight. And that interest will assume a prominent place in its negotiating position when Pyongyang is confronted with demands to give up its long-range missile program.

One approach would be to use the space programs of countries with a comparable level of scientific development, like Vietnam and Sri Lanka, to help guide future assistance. Both have indigenous, peaceful space programs focused on economic development, natural resources, the environment, and communications; they also actively participate in Asian space cooperation organizations. Both have also contracted with outside companies to build telecom satellites and provide launch services.

Because downsizing the North’s missile program, and particularly ending its active export effort — a key objective needed to break the Pyongyang-Tehran axis — will require the North to cut back its large production infrastructure, other forms of assistance might be necessary. What might Pyongyang want? In similar past situations, North Korea requested help in converting abandoned factories and dealing with unemployed workers. One way to handle this potential problem might be to draw on the experience of U.S. programs set up in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their main objective was to help Kiev downsize a missile-production infrastructure that had been used to churn out the bulk of the Soviet Union’s long-range weapons. For example, parts of the Ukrainian complex were converted to producing railway cars and large farm tractors. And many of the less specialized workers — machine tool operators and welders — were easily retrained to work in civilian plants.

All this, aside from helping to reduce the threat of North Korea’s missiles, would also serve the international community’s broader interests. Such programs would help enmesh North Korea in greater cooperation with the outside world, with benefits that Pyongyang might be loath to abandon. And the cooperation could supplement traditional arms control verification measures by giving the world a new window into North Korea’s opaque weapons complex.

U.S. allies can also play a key role. The threat posed by North Korean missiles, along with past abductions of its citizens by Pyongyang, has always been at the top of Japan’s national security agenda. And other countries — particularly China and Russia — might help the North build a peaceful space program or downsize its missile production infrastructure. For example, one key component of a possible agreement during past U.S.-North Korea missile negotiations was Moscow’s provision of space launch services to Pyongyang if the North gave up its long-range weapons.

Clearly, missile talks will be complex, time consuming, and difficult — if they ever get off the ground. But such talks could also play a valuable, reinforcing role if pursued in conjunction with nuclear negotiations. Most importantly, they would make it more and more difficult for Pyongyang to develop dangerous nuclear delivery systems with increasing ranges. Missile talks could also build ties between the North and the international community, help encourage a process of rechanneling resources from military to civilian programs, and increase transparency. For all those reasons, Gates should be applauded for his candor.

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