A Northeast Asia Security Conference

James E. Goodby and
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution
John Endicott

November 5, 2002

North Korea gets attention only when it does something outrageous. It did that once again when it admitted that it has a uranium enrichment program, designed to support the construction of an atomic bomb. The crisis created by the revelation of that program needs to be resolved promptly to prevent events in Northeast Asia from getting out of hand.

If North Korea follows the example of India and Pakistan and conducts a nuclear test explosion, a disastrous war could quickly follow. At the least, it would force to the surface the latent question of nuclear weapons for Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

George W. Bush has referred to “the crossroads of radicalism and technology” as the gravest danger America faces. That sounds like North Korea.

The Bush administration disengaged from the Korean powder keg in March 2001 and later assigned North Korea to the axis of evil. The current diplomacy, which consists of organizing collective economic sanctions while shunning North Korea, may ultimately produce the results it says it wants, but the early returns are not very promising. What to do now? Consult with allies of course, as the administration is doing. But, more to the point, engage Japan, the Republic of Korea, China and Russia in a sustained high-level effort to resolve the Korean question, a sore that has festered for too long. A cooperative security system for Northeast Asia has become a necessity. The nuclear issue will not be solved except in the context of a broad Korean settlement, and all the other regional powers must be involved in it.

An agreement was negotiated with North Korea by the Clinton administration in 1994 which cut off one arm of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, plutonium production. That agreement has become untenable. The Bush administration is right to say that North Korea must cease work on all its nuclear weapons programs and that conventional military forces also need to be addressed, along with many other issues, some of them economic.

But the administration’s fixation on sanctions at this stage is misguided. Societal changes in North Korea will be essential to North-South reconciliation and reunification. The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, seems to realize that his part of Korea is caught in a time warp and needs to escape to a modified form of capitalism of the sort he has observed in China. Choking off those reforms would end the best hope for peaceful change. First things first: The priority is verified elimination of weapons of mass destruction. There is little point in working out yet another elaborate scheme while previous commitments have not been fulfilled.

Two agreements negotiated between North and South Korea a decade ago provide a basis for imposing a verification system throughout the peninsula to guarantee the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Completing this unfinished business must be the first step in a settlement of all outstanding issues in and around Korea.

A Northeast Asia security conference should be convened before the end of this year. North Korea should have a seat at the table, since the purpose would be to verify an end to any and all nuclear weapons programs in North Korea. If Kim Jong Il chooses not to participate, the conference should proceed—its agenda focused on an imminent threat to international peace and security.

Today’s clear and present danger cannot be defused without for-real U.S. diplomatic effort. This requires focused high-level attention. When we see the White House designate its own envoy to deal with the crisis, we will know that help is on the way.