Bridging the Roh-Bush Divide on Korea

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki
Mike Mochizuki Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs - The George Washington University

May 14, 2003

As President Bush and President Roh of South Korea meet today, and follow up this meeting in the weeks and months ahead, they need a new diplomatic strategy to bridge their current divide and find a more promising means of dealing with the North Korean threat. The key is to demand more of North Korea, above and beyond resolution of the nuclear weapons issue, while also offering enough incentives to Pyongyang that it takes the grand bargain proposal seriously.

The Bush administration has been correct in its assertion to date that the United States must adopt a tough policy towards North Korea. But it is wrong in its apparent assumptions that a tough policy precludes offering Pyongyang concrete incentives to change. The right incentives are not bribes; they are catalysts to reform. If North Korea is prepared to change course, not only in its foreign policy and military posture but even in its domestic practices, the US should be willing to help.

In early 2001, the Bush administration stated that North Korea would need to reduce its threatening conventional force posture if it wished more aid and diplomatic relations with the United States. His administration also advocated a multilateral approach to negotiating with North Korea, rather than accepting bilateral US-DPRK talks. But he has given no concrete elaboration of the character of this proposed multilateral approach. And although President Bush has suggested a comprehensive agenda for negotiations, going well beyond the nuclear and missile issues just as we propose, he has yet to lay out any specifics or offer North Korea any concrete incentives to change its ways.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs constitute the most immediate threat to the interests of the United States. But they are hardly the only issue. North Korea’s conventional forces are unacceptably large and dangerous. They may pose the greatest threat to South Korea of any weapons in the DPRK inventory. They could produce tens of thousands of casualties in Seoul through artillery attack alone. Because keeping the North Korean conventional forces funded requires approximately 20-25 percent of the country’s feeble gross domestic product, any policy leaving them intact will preclude hope for gradual economic reform in the North.

Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington should propose a grand diplomatic bargain—or at least a broad, long-term roadmap for future relations—to Pyongyang. Such a bargain would make a number of demands on North Korea:

  • Verifiably end all of its nuclear programs. This would require on-site inspections anywhere, and with little notice, of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities as well as any suspicious sites. It would also restore continuous monitoring equipment at North Korea’s plutonium facilities

  • Reaffirm and accelerate its commitment to allow its spent fuel rods to be taken out of the country, and again commit to eliminate whatever nuclear weapons it now has

  • Stop selling missiles abroad and ban all flight testing and further production of medium-range and longer-range missiles (including the No Dong and Taepo Dong systems)

  • Let all Japanese kidnapping victims and their families leave North Korea—not just the five victims allowed to visit Japan to date or the 13 acknowledged as having been seized by Pyongyang. More broadly, begin a human rights dialogue with the outside world akin to what China has tolerated in recent years, without specific initial demands but with the clear expectation of gradual reforms in internal human rights practices

  • Make large (though not unilateral) cuts in conventional forces, as well as reductions in forward-deployed military capabilities near the demilitarized zone (DMZ)

As negotiations began, South Korea, Japan, and the United States, as well as other interested parties such as China, would keep food aid flowing and resume fuel oil shipments. North Korea would freeze all nuclear activities immediately as well. Washington would promise not to attack Pyongyang as long as its nuclear activities remained frozen and talks continued.

If the North Koreans accepted the above package, the United States would simultaneously offer a non-aggression pledge, sign a peace treaty, and open up diplomatic relations. The allies would also begin to provide large amounts of economic aid. Japan is eventually expected to provide up to $10 billion as a form of compensation for its colonization of North Korea in the first half of the twentieth century. But other countries, including the United States, would have to increase assistance as well. China, particularly, would have to provide much of the technical assistance, given its experience in building enterprise zones within a command economy. This approach would not envision a massive influx of funds to prop up the North Korean standard of living (effectively the approach tried in the former East Germany after the Cold War), but rather an intensive development program. As such, while the price tag would be substantial -perhaps $2 billion a year for a decade -it would not be astronomical.

The United States would also lead efforts to help North Korea develop new energy sources. However, given what we now know about North Korea’s trustworthiness, those sources cannot involve nuclear capable facilities of any kind.

This plan would be presented as an integral whole. Only in that way would it stand a chance of grabbing the attention and focusing the imagination of North Korean leaders, offering them an alternative vision for the future. In practice, however, it could be adopted in stages if that proved most feasible. And it would be phased-in incrementally in any event, because it would take time to work out the details of various arms accords and considerable time to implement an effective aid program for North Korea. But the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal would have to be verifiably stopped right away.

What if this approach does not work? First, given past North Korean negotiating behavior, there is good reason to think it will work. The negotiation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, for example, showed that North Korea was willing to trade away a substantial nuclear capability for a package of benefits that included alternative sources of energy and the hope of gradual diplomatic engagement and economic recovery. Since that time, North Korea’s economic problems have gotten even worse. Accordingly, President Kim Jong Il has demonstrated at least a limited interest in trying economic reform, as attested by his numerous visits to China’s special enterprise zones and tentative but frequent efforts to test new economic ideas within North Korea. North Korean leaders seem to want to change; they just cannot figure out how to do so successfully, while also holding onto power.

If a grand bargain cannot be negotiated with North Korea, a tougher policy of coercion coupled with tighter economic sanctions may have to be seriously considered. Military strikes against the uncompleted North Korean nuclear reactors, as well as the small reactor and reprocessing facility and spent fuel rods, may ultimately have to be contemplated as well. Strangulation may be America’s only hope at that point, short of all-out war or the opening of a nuclear Pandora’s box in Northeast Asia and beyond.

An additional advantage of trying this broad roadmap for future relations with North Korea is that it could help the United States implement a hardline policy if truly necessary. Regional support for such an option, especially critical in regard to South Korea and China, might be more obtainable if Seoul and Beijing recognized that other options had been tried and failed. But it is premature to fall back on that undesirable approach today.