Denuclearizing North Korea

The Washington Post

Two negotiations conducted thousands of miles apart by a largely overlapping group of participants may well determine the prospects of world order. In Beijing, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas are negotiating about the North Korean nuclear program; in Vienna, the so-called E-3 (Germany, France and Britain) occasionally meet with an Iranian negotiator over the Iranian nuclear program. The Korean diplomacy may be heading for a breakthrough. The Iranian talks are deadlocked.

The two nuclear programs are not identical. North Korea (the primary subject of this article) affirms its commitment to a nuclear weapons program and has tested a nuclear device. Iran insists that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes, and it does not claim to have already achieved nuclear weapons capability.

But the same fundamental issue is involved in both negotiations. If the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, together with Germany and Japan, cannot induce North Korea and Iran to accept their recommendations, proliferation will run rampant, and the world will live precariously at the edge of catastrophe.

These negotiations have reignited the longstanding debate over whether diplomacy operates by its own internal rules or whether its impetus must derive from a balance of pressures and incentives. Thus Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, expressed doubt about the usefulness of sanctions against North Korea and emphasized his preference for diplomacy. Similarly, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has declined to support the European draft of sanctions on Iran – the principle of which he had earlier agreed to – on the grounds that pressure would inhibit the prospects of diplomacy.

But pressure – the attempt to induce a decision the other party had not chosen initially – is a necessary component of almost any negotiation. Diplomacy is not an academic seminar; it is about accommodating real national interests in a manner that serves the larger interests of the parties and, one hopes, of the international order. If sanctions cannot move North Korea, arguably the most ruthless regime in the world, and Iran, then what can? How else can the permanent members of the Security Council plus Japan and Germany prevail, except by making clear the consequences of intransigence?

The debate has been distorted by the controversy over regime change. The United States entered both negotiations with a posture of aloofness; it participated by backing the position of other parties that acted as its proxies, but it did not formally conduct talks with countries of the "axis of evil," which it tried to consign to diplomatic isolation. Since the goal of negotiation is an agreement to be carried out by the parties, diplomacy cannot work if one party seeks to overthrow the other. This is why, in essence, the Bush administration has changed its priorities. It has acted in practical ways that, in effect, separate nuclear proliferation from the long-range goals of regime change.

The issue is no longer whether the United States is prepared to negotiate with North Korea and Iran but in what framework and to what purpose. Negotiations on Korea deadlocked for two years for two principal reasons.

The first is inherent in the ideology of a regime that has an extremely limited national interest – if any – in giving up a program it has pursued for two decades or longer while subjecting its population to extreme deprivation and at times starvation. The incentives offered by its five negotiating partners are designed to improve the appalling standard of living of the North Korean population. At the same time, they magnify dependence on an outside world Pyongyang profoundly distrusts. Reform and an opening to the outside world might turn out to be the gravest threat to its survival, by releasing internal pressures independent of the formal positions of other countries. North Korea inevitably enters into the revived negotiations about denuclearization with the utmost reluctance and only under persistent outside pressure.

Not surprisingly, the strategy of North Korea has been to split the five by seeking to negotiate separately with each member, with particular emphasis on the United States. By the same token, it cannot be in America's interest to be maneuvered into a position where it assumes the entire burden of the negotiation, the blame for its possible failure and full responsibility for verifying or enforcing a possible agreement.

The second reason for the deadlock has been that, until the North Korean nuclear explosion, there was insufficient unity among the other parties to the six-party talks to overcome North Korea's stonewalling with a sustained policy.

South Korea is the most interested partner in these negotiations but also the most ambivalent. It clearly has its own agenda for unification, which, if it follows its preferences, will be gradual, to ease the economic drain and safeguard its nationalist interests. These seem to be based less on alliance with the United States than on achieving equidistance between the United States and China. For a variety of reasons, South Korea is reluctant to apply sanctions, perhaps because it believes that North Korea is doomed to collapse in any case and because it does not want to punish those it considers compatriots. Whatever the motive, South Korea has not taken the lead in applying pressure and has followed only an established consensus, albeit reluctantly.

Among the others, Russia's major focus with respect to nonproliferation is on Iran. On Korea, it is likely to go along with a position endorsed by Japan, China and the United States, which are the key players.

Japan, directly threatened both as a result of geography and by experience – at least one North Korean missile test flew over the home islands – feels constrained by history in its public diplomacy. But it applied sanctions unilaterally and immediately after the North Korean explosion and will surely support others within the framework of the Beijing talks. Its fallback position, if the Beijing talks fail and the Korean weapons program continues, is to develop nuclear weapons on its own.

The key to progress is cooperation between China and the United States. Until the North Korean nuclear explosion, China was reluctant to press North Korea, not, as some allege, because it is indifferent to North Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons or sees some benefit in American discomfiture. Rather, it was because China has interests in Northeast Asia that go beyond the denuclearization of North Korea. The Korean Peninsula has been an invasion route to China for centuries. Chaos along its borders and floods of refugees on its territory have unique significance for China. China has been, in effect, insisting on a recognition of these concerns.

The Korean nuclear test has brought both China and the United States much closer. The United States has tacitly accepted the idea that the issue of nuclear weapons and the internal evolution of North Korea need not be the subject of the same negotiation. China has made explicit its concern over a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, from which both South Korea and Japan would emerge with a nuclear program. China has had to consider, as well, the impact on Sino-American relations if the six-party talks fail because of Sino-American differences. It can have no interest in failed negotiations in which South Korea and China opposed the measures favored by the United States and Japan, risking the hopeful prospects of a cooperative Northeast Asia and Pacific community.

For all these reasons, the key challenge of the Korean negotiations is not whether North Korean and American negotiators will meet. That will happen along the path sketched in the public statements of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Asian capitals. Within the context of the six-party talks, the United States should be prepared to talk with Pyongyang – especially on those matters whose performance depends primarily on Washington – but it must not break the united front that now exists on fundamentals.

The key task is to move from sanctions to a conclusion of the negotiations and to do so at a determined pace. In September 2005, at the end of what turned out to be the last session of the six-party talks, North Korea agreed to the principles of abandoning its nuclear program in return for pledges of nonaggression and economic assistance. Afterward, North Korea refused to return to the talks, ostensibly in response to measures the United States had taken outside the Beijing framework to interrupt the counterfeiting and other financial shenanigans by which North Korea supports its diplomatic establishments abroad and the lifestyle of its leaders. That issue has been assigned to a working group of the revived six-party talks.

The challenge is threefold: First, maintain the sanctions that helped bring a breakthrough and not repeat the mistake of the Korean and Vietnamese wars of suspending pressures as an entrance price into negotiations. Second, avoid making North Korean grievances the principal subject of the first round of the negotiations. Third, remain focused on essentials and not be diverted by side issues, either at home or in the negotiations.

It will be necessary to develop a schedule for North Korean abandonment of its nuclear program and a program of economic assistance for North Korea, coupled with security guarantees. If North Korea balks, the other countries or a core group should advance matters by developing a package proposal. It could then be presented to Pyongyang by a spokesman for the group or at a plenary session.

Whatever route is chosen, the North Korean nuclear problem needs to be brought to a conclusion now. The denuclearization of North Korea would be a historic step and perhaps a turning point. America's internal decision-making should be geared to this opportunity. If China, Japan, Russia, the United States and South Korea cannot conclude an effort so imperative for world peace in the face of the defiance of a country with few resources and a relatively small population, then appeals for diplomacy will become increasingly empty. By the same token, the success that appears within reach could inaugurate a new era of cooperation across the Pacific.

© 2006 Tribune Media Services Inc.