North Korea’s Bid for Security Pledge Could Be a Trap

As the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan prepare for talks set to be held later this month on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, optimists believe Kim Jong Il might trade away his nuclear program in return for a security guarantee and economic assistance. If a buyout is possible, we should start thinking about its substance, because the security guarantee the Bush administration is reportedly considering may be less benign than meets the eye.

We don’t know if Kim is prepared to do a deal. The North Korean leader may have already decided to declare his country a nuclear power, regardless of the consequences. If nothing else, using the talks to probe his intentions would be worth the effort.

But the question remains: What kind of security guarantee is appropriate?

Some experts would argue there is no need for any guarantee. They say North Korea’s paranoia about a U.S. nuclear attack is just that—a paranoid fantasy. In fact, Washington has repeatedly sought to reassure Pyongyang about U.S. intentions.

But suppose Kim lies sleepless in bed at night fretting about the Bush administration’s sometimes bellicose rhetoric and its success in ousting Saddam Hussein. He may believe he’s next. So reducing his insecurity will be necessary to increase our security.

North Korea has consistently demanded a mutual nonaggression pact with the United States. It is said a treaty binding this and future administrations to keep North Korea out of U.S. cross hairs would be the only way to reassure Kim convincingly. Washington has talked only about a multilateral commitment that is not legally binding. One reason for this, no doubt, is that no Republican-controlled Senate would ratify a treaty along the lines proposed by North Korea. Yet, why should senators object if the author of the “axis of evil” label believed that a binding bargain with Pyongyang would serve U.S. interests?

The real problem with a security guarantee is that the quid would not match the quo. Under the bargain that many optimists envision, North Korea would be obligated to give up forever its capabilities to build weapons of mass destruction and, likely, to accept intrusive verification. In return, the United States—and perhaps other countries—would make commitments about its intentions.

That exchange is fundamentally imbalanced in Washington’s favor. Why would Kim accept it? It could not be because he trusted the Bush administration.

Peel the onion once more. If a quid pro quo is to take the form of a treaty, it should be reciprocal, imposing restraint on Pyongyang as well as Washington. North Korea’s fledgling long-range missile program poses only a small threat to U.S. territory, but its conventional forces massively threaten South Korea. If the United States took steps to reduce Pyongyang’s insecurity, at what point should North Korea reduce South Korea’s insecurity?

In any case, how would we explain Kim’s willingness to give up weapons capabilities for promises? The North Korean leader is not a stupid man. There must be more at play here.

One explanation is that Pyongyang’s demand for a security guarantee is a bargaining chip to extract more external assistance. Another is that Kim merely wants a face-saving gesture: He wouldn’t insist on a binding treaty but would accept a U.S. statement of policy. In either case—bargaining chip or symbol—the North Korean leader would meet Washington’s demand to end its programs to build weapons of mass destruction. If that’s his game, we should be prepared to play and give him the symbolic assurance he desires.

Then again, Kim may intend to cheat on whatever commitments he makes. He might have no confidence that the United States would keep its word and every confidence that he can renege on any pledge he makes. By cheating, he would preserve the peninsular balance of terror and his deterrent against a U.S. attack. Of course, that would be unacceptable to the United States and would increase Japan’s and South Korea’s security anxieties, which is all the more reason to insist on strict verification as a test of his sincerity.

There is a more ominous explanation for Kim’s acceptance of an unfavorable quid pro quo: He wouldn’t accept the imbalance at all but would demand that the United States put its military capabilities on the table. If U.S. military power genuinely makes North Korea insecure, and if the North Korean leader assumes the United States takes the same opportunistic and cavalier approach toward international agreements that he does, the only way Kim could justify giving up his deterrent against the United States would be to ask the U.S. to give up its deterrent against him. What would he ask Washington to bargain away? U.S. ground, naval and air units in South Korea? U.S. forces in Japan, whose primary mission is the defense of South Korea?

There is little reason to worry that the administration would be taken in by such proposals should Pyongyang make them. It would either dismiss them out of hand or broaden the discussion to include North Korea’s conventional forces. After all, U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force units are stationed in South Korea and Japan to deter precisely these forces.

But South Korea could be another story. A significant segment of opinion in the country disregards the threat that North Korea poses and thus the value of the U.S. deterrent. By putting U.S. capabilities on the table, North Korea could exploit this divide among South Koreans. For Kim, the security guarantee could become a means to reduce his sense of insecurity and split the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Since the issue of a security guarantee for Kim is not a trivial matter, what should be done?

First, U.S. negotiators should anticipate that Pyongyang may try to make U.S. forces a part of the security-guarantee bargain. One countermeasure would be to raise the issue of the North’s conventional capabilities.

Second, Washington should consult with Seoul on the possibility that North Korea may seek to manipulate a security guarantee in a way that would jeopardize South Korea’s security. If there is a trap being set here, it is the government of President Roh Moo-hyun that must warn the South Korean public not to walk into it.

If serious negotiations begin on some sort of “grand bargain,” it will be because the United States, South Korea, China and Japan present a united front. That unity must be maintained throughout the talks. As much as all parties want a peaceful outcome, the goal should be a more secure Northeast Asia.