Impasse in Korea: A Conventional Arms-Accord Solution?

NOTE: This article, a line-edited version of which appeared in the IISS journal Survival in 1999, is being posted on the Brookings website in 2003 due to recent developments on the Korean peninsula. The current crisis may make the sweeping conventional arms accord proposed here increasingly relevant. It could help United States find a way out of its current catch 22—either refuse to talk to the North Koreans as they enlarge their nuclear arsenal, or appear to give in to Pyongyang’s blackmail.

The Korean peninsula may be returning to a state of acute military crisis. The “Agreed Framework” of 1994—aimed at freezing and eventually ending any North Korean development of nuclear weapons, in exchange for new nuclear reactors after several years and heavy fuel oil from the Western world in the interim—may not survive 1999. An economically beleaguered North Korea appears bent on attempting to extort money from the United States and its allies with its ballistic missile programs and a new excavation site in its mountains that may be nuclear-weapons related. The U.S. Congress, Japanese Diet, and many important policymakers in South Korea are unwilling to be blackmailed in this way. Even more to the point, against this backdrop they may well suspend their efforts under the 1994 reactor deal. If that happens, North Korea may begin to uncan and reprocess nuclear waste, directly raising the possibility of a US/ROK attack on its nuclear facilities and hence producing a risk of general war on the peninsula.

Rather than simply try to talk North Korea out of its blackmail efforts, Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo could up the ante and try to negotiate a grand bargain with the DPRK regime of Kim Jong-Il. These three countries could offer Pyongyang a new deal: in exchange for a major conventional arms reduction treaty, they would not only lift U.S. sanctions but provide significant amounts of economic aid over at least a five-year period. Mutual diplomatic recognition and peace treaties would also be part of this proposed accord.

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