How to Make Progress on North Korea

The Washington Post

The American special representative for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, returned from Pyongyang last week after unusually benign conversations. The North Korean government affirmed "the need to resume six-power talks" on the nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula. It added, however, the proviso that the United States and Korea "needed to cooperate to narrow the remaining differences" before it would rejoin the established six-power diplomatic framework, from which it walked out a year ago while abandoning all the undertakings it had made during those talks. In other words, Pyongyang seeks separate negotiations with the United States while keeping the other parties out of the diplomatic process, at least for a while.

North Korea's agenda links its denuclearization to the completion of a Korean peace treaty, a Northeast Asia security system, normalization of relations with the United States and removal of any threat against it — presumably from whatever source. This is not an agenda lending itself to rapid resolution. Despite North Korea's conciliatory tone, its agenda seems, above all, designed to gain time and to split the five other parties.

It is time to face realities. This is the 15th year during which the United States has sought to end North Korea's nuclear program through negotiations. These have been conducted in two-party and six-party forums. The result was the same, whatever the framework. In their course, Pyongyang has mothballed its nuclear facilities twice. Each time it ended the moratorium unilaterally. Twice it has tested nuclear explosions and long-range missiles during recesses of negotiations. If this pattern persists, diplomacy will turn into a means of legitimizing proliferation rather than arresting it. Why should Pyongyang alter its conduct when, within weeks of the end of a test series, an American special representative appears in Pyongyang to explore the prospects of new negotiations? At a minimum, before any formal talks take place, North Korea should be required to return matters to where they were when it broke off talks a year ago and refused to receive Bosworth, specifically mothballing its plutonium production.

Pyongyang argues that its security concerns must be met first, that the principal threat to its security comes from the United States and that it therefore must gain special assurances from Washington before entering actual negotiations. But what bilateral assurances could possibly serve this purpose? Only a Northeast Asia security system could come close to creating an appropriate framework, and this requires the six-party forum.

Nor is Pyongyang so naive as to believe it could achieve security by threatening a nuclear strike at the United States. Far more likely is that North Korea seeks recognition as a nuclear power so it can intimidate South Korea and Japan, which have so far refrained from joining the proliferation process. It can also gain support by assisting weapons programs, as it has in Pakistan and in Syria, for which it built a copy of its own plutonium plant. North Korea seems so on automatic pilot that even while Bosworth was in Pyongyang, a plane loaded with missile parts was dispatched to South Asia, where it was intercepted in Bangkok. Pyongyang, in its more exuberant moments, may even see itself in a position to play off Beijing and Washington against each other.

Each of the other participants in the six-party talks has every interest in rapidly ending the nuclear weapons threat, while Pyongyang's interest is to stall the negotiations for as long as possible. This is why bilateral U.S. talks with Pyongyang tend to undermine the unity of the remaining four. South Korea will resent peace talks in which North Korea is a party in a bilateral forum that excludes Seoul. Japan will not delegate its concerns regarding its citizens abducted by North Korea as forced labor to train North Korean intelligence personnel.

The position of China is more complex. It has strongly condemned Pyongyang's nuclear testing. But it is more sensitive than its partners to the danger of destabilizing the political structure of North Korea. Great respect must be paid to Chinese views on a matter so close to its borders and directly affecting its interests. But in the end, a face-saving gesture for Pyongyang will be meaningful only as a brief transition to the six-power forum.

The protracted process of opening negotiations runs the risk of becoming a palliative for substance. The test is substantive progress on the key issue: the elimination of a nuclear weapons capability. In view of the continuing technological progress in Pyongyang, which claims to have added a nuclear enrichment facility to its plutonium program, time is of the essence. The catalogue for reciprocal security and economic assurances is well established, and the United States should make its contribution — short of accepting a definition of itself as a special threat. In the end, the greatest risk to Pyongyang is not foreign aggression but internal collapse caused by its excessive ambitions. No additional reconnaissance is needed about Pyongyang's intentions: The six-party forum provides adequate opportunity for dealing with the issues. The famous dictum of Napoleon is apposite: "If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna."

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.