Bargain Tough with North Koreans

The United States, together with its key regional allies South Korea and Japan, needs a new North Korea policy. And we need it fast—well before completing what is now a likely war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

When entering office, the Bush team was right to want to revise the Clinton administration’s approach to North Korea. Although the latter had usefully produced the 1994 Agreed Framework and the beginnings of a process of detente on the peninsula, diplomacy had stalled by the end of the 1990s. In addition, North Korea was becoming too prone to demand large sums of money for not doing things—like missile development—it really should not have been doing anyway. Moreover, talk of a possible U.S. presidential visit to North Korea was badly premature, given the horrible nature of the Pyongyang regime.

Finally, we now also know that the Clinton approach, despite its strengths, did not prevent the North Koreans from beginning an underground “basement bomb” program sometime in the late 1990s. Such a program, if unchecked, will eventually allow the North Koreans to add a uranium-based nuclear bomb every couple of years to what is probably a small existing arsenal of plutonium bombs developed under the first Bush administration.

But the Bush policy has been too unthinkingly hard-line from the start, and now the United States finds itself in a dilemma. Refusing to deal with the Kim Jong Il regime until it comes clean on all nuclear activities appears to be a failing strategy based on recent developments. North Korea, having just removed monitors and seals from its stock of waste fuel primarily produced in the early 1990s under Bush 41, is now in a position to add to its arsenal of one or two bombs by quickly producing perhaps half a dozen more. Moreover, it will be difficult for the Bush administration to confront this threat the way Defense Secretary Bill Perry threatened to attack larger North Korean reactors under construction in 1994—with a pre-emptive military strike—because such an attack against spent fuel facilities would release large amounts of radioactivity.

The Bush administration is right that a hard-line policy is needed. But it is wrong to think that being hard-line precludes negotiations. The U.S. and its allies need the kind of tough, unflinching diplomatic strategy that Ronald Reagan used in regard to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That is the way to regain the upper hand with North Korea without simply encouraging a vicious cycle of additional extortionate demands from Pyongyang.

So what should the tough U.S. demands involve? The Bush administration was onto something when it stated, early in 2001, that North Korea would need to reduce its threatening conventional force posture if it wished more aid and diplomatic relations with the United States. Although its nuclear and missile programs constitute the more immediate threat, as the Clinton administration rightly concluded, North Korea’s conventional forces are unacceptably large and dangerous. They could produce tens of thousands of casualties in Seoul through artillery attack alone. They gobble up perhaps 20 to 25 percent of North Korea’s feeble gross domestic product, meaning that any policy leaving them intact will preclude hope for gradual economic reform in the North.

As such, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington should propose a grand bargain to North Korea.

  • Pyongyang would come clean on its nuclear programs, allowing on-site inspections and resealing the unprocessed plutonium at immediate issue today.
  • It would stop selling missiles abroad and ban all flight testing of longer-range missiles.
  • It would let all Japanese kidnap victims and their families leave North Korea.
  • And it would make disproportionately large (though not unilateral) cuts in conventional forces, as well as reductions in its forward-deployed military capabilities near the demilitarized zone.

In exchange, South Korea, Japan and the United States would provide substantial economic aid (they would also keep food as well as fuel oil flowing now, on humanitarian grounds and as a show of good faith). Japan is eventually expected to provide up to $10 billion as a form of compensation for its colonization of North Korea, so much of the funding could come from Tokyo. We would sign a peace treaty and open up diplomatic relations. As requested, we would provide technical aid to accompany the economic aid so North Korea could begin to reform.

But this offer would be hard-line, and Reaganesque, in a very important way—it would essentially be all or nothing. North Korea could not get half the aid by making good only on nuclear and missile programs, for example, because such an approach would reaffirm its policy of blackmail. By adding conventional forces to the equation, we would be setting much of the agenda, and also forcing North Korea to make fundamental choices about the future nature of the regime and about economic reform.

This type of policy may well work. But the North Koreans are far too ornery, obstinate and unimaginative to think of it on their own. And the incoming South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, has a lot of other things to think about in coming weeks. That means there is a critical role for Washington. And the time to play it is now.