Negotiating With a Nation That’s Really Gone Nuclear

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

February 15, 2004

No one, perhaps not even North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il, knows whether that country can boost itself into the status of a nuclear weapons state, or even a quasi-nuclear weapons state, within the next year or so. Making a nuclear weapon and the missile to deliver it, even if the essential raw materials are at hand, is not an easy task. But the stakes are very high, and it would be foolish to discount the possibility that the North Koreans can accomplish what they have openly said they plan to do. North Korean engineers recently showed a visiting U.S. scientist a chunk of metal that they said was plutonium, one of the basic ingredients of an atomic bomb. Maybe they were exaggerating their progress to maximize the deterrent effect on the United States. It is safer, however, to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

The cold political realities of Northeast Asia starkly reveal the limitations of a preventive war doctrine. President Bush recognized that conflict last week when he announced a new proliferation policy that belatedly places more emphasis on diplomacy and international cooperation. Negotiations are not an assured way of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear ambitions but they are the only way that has a real chance, short of a serious war. Six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States began last August. They ended in acrimony, and diplomats have been busy trying to re-start them. It now looks as though the discussions will resume Feb. 25 in Beijing.

The negotiators will have a tough time overcoming the legacy of suspicion that surrounds North Korea’s nuclear intentions. It was reinforced by North Korea’s admission in October 2002, in response to a U.S. accusation, that it had been covertly developing a uranium enrichment plant using centrifuge technology—another means of acquiring fuel for a nuclear weapon. That was the death knell for the Agreed Framework, a 1994 pact negotiated between North Korea and the United States during the Clinton administration.

The Agreed Framework stopped North Korea’s plutonium production program. But the revelation of a covert weapons program led to a cascading series of actions and counter-actions that left the agreement in shreds. North Korea ostentatiously threw out international inspectors who had been monitoring the implementation of the agreement, and declared that it would begin separating plutonium from the 8,000 irradiated fuel rods that had been stored under international supervision. The North Koreans claim that they have performed that task and are in possession of a nuclear deterrent. But, in a curious twist, they now deny that they ever had a uranium enrichment plant or had ever suggested that they did. That story will be difficult to sell since the man known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program seems to have confirmed that Pakistani scientists provided centrifuge assistance to North Korea.

China’s diplomats had hoped to negotiate a mandate for the Six-Party talks, to provide a framework for focused discussion. That effort failed. The United States wanted an upfront commitment that North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons programs “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly.” The North Koreans insisted on the principle of “simultaneous action,” meaning that they wanted the United States to give up something tangible at the outset, too. North Korea proposed a first-stage package deal, under which it would agree not to manufacture, test or transfer nuclear weapons and to freeze its peaceful nuclear power industry in return for energy assistance, the lifting of U.S. sanctions and security assurances. The United States has been willing to talk about multilateral security assurances, but the administration will need some move by North Korea to clear up the uranium enrichment issue. There’s a wide gap between the sides, but at least they’re talking. Will the faint signs of a dialogue mature into a real negotiation? The present posturing is little more than Potemkin-village diplomacy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has succeeded—just barely—in re-opening the door to U.S. engagement with North Korea. There are skillful negotiators and wise counselors in Washington, and among the other negotiating partners. But they are hobbled because the Bush administration is deeply divided over Korea policy. One camp believes that only regime change can remove the security threat that clearly exists. It wants to strangle the North Korean regime, preferably by methods short of war. The other camp believes, or hopes, that transformation can be induced through engagement, primarily economic, leading to a moderation of North Korea’s harsh system and to the beginning of reconciliation with its neighbors and the United States.

Each argument has its flaws. The engagement approach can prop up a failed regime that cannot or will not conform to minimum standards of international behavior. The regime-changers have been predicting the collapse of North Korea’s government for years. It hasn’t happened, and most experts think that Kim has a firm grip on power.

The logic of the situation argues against policies that require lots of time, as a strangulation policy certainly would. North Korean diplomats tell Americans that time is not on the American side and, even though they say it, a look at the probable sequence of events over the next few years suggests that they have a point. Kim has three options, any one of which may be within his power to carry out.

  • Option 1: Negotiate away his nuclear programs and nuclear weapons, if he has any. This would be the best outcome for all concerned. Of course, the United States and its friends would have to pay a hefty price to achieve that, and Kim can be counted on to drive a hard bargain.

Option 2: Keep North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in its current ambiguous status. That was essentially the status of India and Pakistan before they carried out nuclear tests in 1998. Those tests radically changed the situation in Asia, and so would a North Korean test. North Korea in its present status is better than if it were a nuclear weapons state. But ambiguity is inherently an unstable arrangement: It would generate tensions, which probably would lead to conflict sooner or later.

Option 3: Join the ranks of the de facto nuclear weapons states by testing one or more devices and then moving to production of nuclear weapons, including long-range missiles. If the phrase “crossing the red line” means anything in Korea, this is where it is. That’s why the administration should wage peace in Northeast Asia with the same intensity that it waged war in the Middle East.

If Kim decides to make North Korea a full-fledged nuclear weapons state, the aftershocks would be felt throughout Asia. Japan would develop nuclear weapons to deter North Korea; China would add to its modest nuclear stockpile to offset Japan; India would move to match China; Pakistani and Iranian leaders could be expected to reevaluate their options. Nuclear restraints, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty, could not survive in such an environment. The conditions that helped the world avoid a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War will not prevent a new nuclear arms race.

North Korea is a textbook case of a “gathering threat,” the apocalyptic image that President Bush must have had in mind when he proclaimed his doctrine of preventive war. North Korea’s response has been that it has a right to develop a nuclear deterrent, and expects to go on doing so until the United States ceases threatening it and removes obstacles to its economic development. In fact, North Korea has practically demanded to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state.

But the administration has chosen diplomacy for now. This is good news because war on the Korean peninsula would be devastating, certainly for Koreans in both the North and South, and possibly also for the Japanese. American forces would almost certainly suffer heavy casualties in extended combat. The bad news is that the administration is not making a diplomatic effort comparable to the high stakes involved. It has chosen neither war nor peace, and has ceded too much of the initiative to others.

The record of the past is replete with defiant rhetoric and nonnegotiable declarations. Meanwhile, the North Koreans are steadily moving into a position from which they might be able to fabricate several atomic bombs in the year ahead. The outlook for 2004 does not have to be more of the same, or worse, but that is what it will be unless Kim decides to take a chance on real negotiations, and unless President Bush finally lets Colin Powell try for a settlement.