Coming to Closure with North Korea

Joel S. Wit and Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

April 18, 2001

The Bush Administration’s recent decision to put off a quick resumption of negotiations with North Korea is probably just temporary. Senior U.S. government officials realize that there is no alternative to engagement with the North and have already begun their review of American policy. The key issues are what kind of engagement policy the administration will pursue and what price it is prepared to pay to close a deal with the North. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration appears poised to propose an overly ambitious and unrealistic approach for comprehensive threat reduction. Instead, it should moderate its ambitions for an initial agreement and seek to tackle the really hard issues in subsequent phases of negotiations.

Playing hard to get with the North for now may make good political and tactical sense. There are political minefields to avoid with the Congress and wooing the North only encourages Kim Jong-Il to dip his hand deeper into American pockets. Moreover, engaging the North at a more deliberate pace could improve the U.S. bargaining position when negotiations resume. While the North can still cause trouble, Pyongyang’s pressing needs for foreign assistance and improved relations with the United States affords the Administration considerable leverage.

The Bush review of Korea policy is likely to conclude that the political and diplomatic tracks of the reconciliation process were too far ahead of North Korean agreement to threat reduction. Hence the need for greater “reciprocity.” In addition, the new Administration is understandably worried about possible hidden military activities in the North. The solution to this problem, in the administration’s view, will be to push for intrusive, on-site verification measures. Finally, the United States will attach a much higher priority to reducing North Korea’s conventional military advantages. In short, the US policy review is likely to link assistance and recognition to North Korean agreement to far-reaching limits on its weapons of mass destruction and conventional military capabilities coupled with on-site verification measures.

Such an approach, while not without merit, could quickly run into trouble. Kim Jong-Il remains beholden to a highly suspicious military establishment that may not be ready to surrender all of its country’s crown jewels. Moreover, if he is willing to bargain, ambitious demands by the United States are likely to prompt escalating counter demands for assistance and the reduction of the American military threat, which Washington may not be prepared to meet. Further, in pressing for a variety of on-site verification measures, the United States will be asking this extremely cautious and paranoid country to sprint before it can crawl on arms control verification. In short, the administration may need a “Plan B”.

Take the prospective missile deal between the Clinton Administration and Pyongyang. According to press reports, it was fairly comprehensive. The deal would have banned North Korean missile exports, testing of its long-range missiles, numerical limits on certain types of deployed missiles, and an end to the production of those missiles. Many experts are urging the Bush Administration to pick up where its predecessor left off. That may be the prudent approach but it may also be a prescription for failure, in large part because securing the on-site verification measures for such a comprehensive deal could be very difficult. Some arms controllers argue that an agreement with weak verification measures is better than no agreement than all. This view, however, is politically naïve.

The only alternative may be initially to agree to what we can verify without extensive on-site measures such as a permanent ban on missile tests and on all missile exports, components, and technologies. Both the United States and North Korea could also continue to work towards more comprehensive limits—including greater verification—in subsequent agreements, which may become more feasible if North Korea’s political relations with the United States and South Korea continue to improve.

Another near-term step could be a program of cooperative on-site verification. One possibility would be a joint American-North Korean program for the conversion of North Korean missile production facilities to civilian uses. This initiative would offer benefits for both sides. It would allow the United States access to North Korean military production facilities while helping to secure the gradual end of its missile program. Pyongyang would get additional help for its faltering civilian economy.

Adopting a phased approach has drawbacks. It would, for example, put the United States in the undesirable position of buying off the North Korean threat in installments, although hard bargaining could mitigate this problem. Additionally, a limited missile deal would, at least in the short-run, sacrifice other important objectives. Thus, while it would end destabilizing missile exports to regions like the Middle East and substantially reduce the long-range North Korean missile threat, the deal would not immediately satisfy Japan, since it would not limit the threat it faces from North Korean Nodong missiles. Nonetheless, it could begin a process of ever tightening constraints on the missile threat which would eventually serve the interests of all concerned parties.

The Bush Administration may find itself at an important crossroads in Northeast Asia. It can play an active role in shaping the future of a region in transition away from the Cold War, or it can decide to cede the initiative to others while it watches from the sidelines. A collapse of negotiations with the North over what could be seen as unreasonable U.S. proposals would cause serious harm to U.S. relations with South Korea and Japan as well as undermine U.S. leadership and influence in the region. The Bush administration will need to strike the right balance between principles and practical measures, both in its overall approach on the Korean peninsula and in critical negotiations with Pyongyang. It would do well to remember that “the best should not become the enemy of the good.”