Possible Win-Win Solution to the North Korean Crisis

LINDA WERTHEIMER: China today confirmed it will host talks this month on North Korea’s nuclear program. Officials from the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia will attend. Commentator Michael O’Hanlon says Washington should think about changing its approach to making the region safer and more stable in the long run.Michael O’Hanlon of The Brookings Institution has been giving a lot of thought to how this crisis might be defused and how a long-term resolution of tensions between the United States and North Korea might be brought about. With his colleague, Mike Mochizuki, Mr. O’Hanlon has written a book called “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea.” Mr. O’Hanlon, thank you very much for coming in.

Now your view is that what is needed is a ‘road map’ for the way North Korea relates to Seoul and to the region and, of course, the United States. I wanted to go over some of the elements of that plan. But first, I want you to tell me why you think it’s necessary to think big.

MICHAEL O’HANLON: Mostly because North Korea needs hope. They’re in a hole they don’t know how to get out. Their economy is failing. Their society is failing. And if we just negotiate on tactics and on the short-term crisis of the nuclear weapons issue, they are not going to see any way to fix their economy, and they’re just going to wait for the next opportunity to use a dangerous weapons program to try to extort resources from the international community.

WERTHEIMER: Now the centerpiece of your plan is not the nuclear disarmament part—that’s first—but the big part is conventional disarmament, getting rid of tanks, planes, helicopters, artillery, weapons, vehicles of all kinds on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

O’HANLON: That’s right. The real motivation is to get the North Koreans to cut forces so that their economy can begin to recover. Right now, they spend 25 percent of their GDP on their military. It is by far the highest ratio in the world. It is about eight times what we spend here in the United States, about eight or nine times what the South Koreans spend, and you’ve got to find some way to induce them to do this. Part of the inducement is that we will give them economic aid, but part of the inducement is we will at least make small, reciprocating cuts in our own forces. We don’t give the North Koreans 20 billion bucks up front. We essentially, together with our partners, give about $2 billion a year not in cash but in building infrastructure, health programs, so forth, as we watch the North Koreans cut their forces. And then we can also offer the famous non-aggression pledge, which is so much in the news these days, as a final piece of this overall pie.

WERTHEIMER: Well, there’s also a problem with President Bush buying into this. He’s said over and over again that he is opposed to nuclear blackmail, which is what he perceives Korea to be doing. And President Bush clearly has a very low opinion of North Korea’s leader. He has said that he loathes Kim Jong Il, and that’s one of the milder things he said.

O’HANLON: That is one of the milder things he said. But we like to argue that we’re trying to build on some of the ideas you put on the table, Mr. President. You’ve said the North Koreans have a conventional military that’s too large. You and your secretary of Defense and others have said they need a market economy, they need to move in the direction of reform. We’re trying to essentially force the North Koreans to change their regime without regime change. This is not an easy deal for the North Koreans to accept. They may very well say no because this requires them to take extraordinarily painful medicine, and to really change their country the way Vietnam has in the last 20 years or so, the way China has in much of its eastern regions. They can still potentially hold onto power, but they’re going to have to change their economy, even begin to change some of their human rights policy. And, therefore, we’re not buying out a weapons program. We are helping them radically change their own failed way of organizing their society.

WERTHEIMER: But Kim Jong Il, obviously, has got to see this as headed for regime change. So why would he want to play?

O’HANLON: He would want to play if he’s convinced the alternative is worse. If the alternative is either war because we will go after his nuclear facilities at some point or continue deterioration of his economy to the point where he can’t even sustain his own lifestyle and that of his top leadership, he may feel that taking a chance on these entrepreneurial zones and on this gradual economic reform is a chance worth risking. After all, the Chinese did it and they kept their Communist Party in power. The Vietnamese did it and they kept their Communist Party in power. We have two very good examples, and we have one of those two countries willing to play a big role in this whole process and they…

WERTHEIMER: And that’s China…

O’HANLON: That’s right. That’s right.

WERTHEIMER: …which will be sitting at the table.

O’HANLON: Absolutely. And which has been probably our number-one partner in this whole recent business.

WERTHEIMER: Another point that you make in the midst of this argument is that North Korea cheats. They made an agreement to back down on their nuclear production and then they secretly started doing it again. How does the United States, how do all these countries sit down and make an agreement with a country that behaves that way?

O’HANLON: It’s not going to be easy, and you have to build a plan that allows people to develop confidence as you implement it year by year. It’s good to have the Russians involved as well because the Russians have experience with conventional force reduction treaties. They did with us back in the Cold War period, and the Russians can say to the North Koreans, ‘Listen, the Americans are not going to use this as a pretext to attack because you don’t have to show them where you keep your leadership. You don’t have to show them where you keep your mobile forces. You have to account for most of your heavy weaponry. You can hide your state secrets. You can hide your top leaders and we’ll show you how because we used to do it when we were having this conventional force in Europe treaty with NATO.’ And so Russia can play a role helping reassure and spur on the North Koreans. China can say, ‘We can do economic reform and teach you how to do it and stay in power without losing control over your own society. It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to learn some new things you really didn’t want to learn, but you have no choice.’ So having those two countries involved in the six-party talks and in any implementation of any agreement is critical. It’s one of the reasons why the North Koreans may get the necessary confidence to try this.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think the chances are that the talks that are about to start will achieve something?

O’HANLON: I think there’s some hope because I think the Bush administration is at least wrestling with the idea of giving greater inducements to the North Koreans. Let’s face it; this administration has really wanted to hide from this crisis for a long time. So we are in trouble if we don’t really focus on this and get it right.

WERTHEIMER: Michael O’Hanlon of The Brookings Institution. His book written with Mike Mochizuki is called “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula.” Mike, thanks very much.

O’HANLON: My pleasure. Thank you.