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The Limits of North Korea Talks

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad - A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

I'm all for talking with our enemies, so it's good to know that the six-party talks on Korea will soon resume. "Jaw, jaw," as Winston Churchill said, is better than "war, war." But we have to be realistic about what talks with North Korea can now achieve. Even if the administration were willing to enter bilateral talks and offer a real deal of security guarantees as well as tangible political and economic benefits to the North — neither of which it is likely to do — the resumption of negotiations isn't likely to achieve the ultimate goal of these talks, which is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The reason is simple — North Korea is today a nuclear power. It's long been known that the North had accumulated sufficient weapons-grade material to produce a nuclear bomb, but last month's nuclear test has turned this potential into a reality. So while Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials try to deny the obvious — which they do when they say North Korea isn't a nuclear power or that its nuclear status is unacceptable — the fact of the matter is that Pyongyang has joined just 9 other states that have ever acquired nuclear weapons of their own. And of these nine, only one (South Africa) ever decided to give up that capability; the others continue to maintain and, in most cases, expand and modernize their nuclear arsenals.

The lesson of this history is clear — getting a country to give up the nuclear weapons it has produced is exceedingly difficult, and will only occur when there is a change of regime. (It was the end of apartheid that led the South African leaders to get rid of their small weapons capability.) This doesn't mean that our policy should aim for immediate, let alone forceful, regime change in Pyongyang — though given its nature, a change of regime there must ultimately be our goal. It does mean that we have to be clear about what negotiations — be they in bilateral or in six-party format — can realistically achieve.

They cannot achieve what the Bush administration insists are its sole objective — the complete and verifiable dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear capability. The immediate objective of the negotiations must be more limited — namely to freeze the North's nuclear capability and to verify that this has occurred. There should be no more nuclear testing. Plutonium production must end. Any uranium enrichment program should be declared and ended. And international inspectors must return to ensure these commitments are observed.

A verifiable freeze may well be beyond reach of any negotiations — even if, in the unlikely event, the administration gets its act together and for once pursues a coherent policy toward the North. Success, moreover, would only get us back to where the Clinton administration got us more than a dozen years ago — and even that 1994 Framework Agreement included a commitment by Pyongyang actually to dismantle its nuclear facilities and destroy all weapons materials.

Nothing, surely, better underscores the failure of the Bush administration's Korea policy than the fact that the best we can hope for is a return to where we were 12 years ago. And even that possibility seems increasingly out of reach.

Posted at TPM Café on November 3, 2006 -- 1:03 PM Eastern Time

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