Think Bigger on North Korea

While the world is fixated on Iraq and the Middle East, North Korea continues to pose at least as great a threat to Western security interests. Six-party talks with the North Koreans in Beijing have just showed that the Bush administration hasn’t yet found a way out of the nuclear crisis. Although negotiations appear likely to resume in a couple of months, their prospects for success seem poor.

The basic dilemma is easy to understand. North Korea will not surrender its nuclear capabilities, which are among its only valuable national assets, unless offered a very good deal for giving them up. President Bush refuses to offer such a deal because he sees the North Korean demand as blackmail. He insists that before any talks about better diplomatic relations or economic interaction occur, North Korea first relinquish—with verification—a nuclear program it had pledged nine years ago to abandon completely. At most, Bush may, as an interim gesture, offer to sign a multilateral accord in which all six parties (the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia) pledge not to attack each other.

Meanwhile, in fits and starts North Korea continues its gradual progress toward a larger nuclear capability. Given the regime’s desperate economic straits, its erratic and eccentric and isolated regime and its threats last April that it might even export nuclear materials if circumstances got bad enough, this is extremely bad news.

To the extent the Bush administration has a plan for addressing this crisis, it is a strategy of pressure. It insisted on the six-party negotiating format because that allows the other five parties all to insist that North Korea de-nuclearize. That kind of setting also deprives North Korea of its bluster and brinkmanship tactics.

For example, when the delegation from Pyongyang used the recent Beijing meeting to accuse the Bush administration of harboring aggressive designs on North Korea, Russia countered that it was confident the United States had no such intention. The Bush administration also has established a creative concept known as the proliferation security initiative, by which countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, France and Germany make use of existing national laws to inspect North Korean ships in their waters—complicating North Korea’s efforts to smuggle illicit weapons, drugs and counterfeit currency.

And the military card is still on the table in principle as well.

But the Bush administration’s strategy is unlikely to work. Faced with gradual economic strangulation, North Korea’s stubborn and spiteful regime would probably again let its people starve—and perhaps consider selling dangerous weapons to terrorists—before crying uncle. Moreover, China, South Korea and Japan are far from ready to apply such a “python strategy.” China publicly criticized the United States for having an inflexible stance in last month’s talks.

Japan and South Korea both insisted on presenting a more conciliatory package of incentives to North Korea in Beijing than Washington was prepared to countenance. And none of our three key regional partners has any interest whatever in a military option at this point.

Faced with this dilemma, we need to think bigger. We must offer much more to North Korea but demand far more in return. The goal should be to push North Korea, which has shown increasing interest in economic reform, to seriously attempt such reform—building on the precedents offered by China and Vietnam in the past two decades. If North Korea is willing and takes steps, such as cutting its conventional military forces, that are needed to give such a plan any hope of success, we can be generous in return. This would not be giving in to blackmail; it would be a form of assisted suicide for the Stalinist ways of the North Korean regime. Even if Kim Jong Il and his cronies survived the transition, their rule would be radically transformed.

This plan would require the help of all six parties that are now part of the negotiating process. Chinese economists and technicians would teach the North Koreans how to carry out market reforms. Russia would reassure Kim Jong Il and his military commanders that intrusive arms control verification can be done without opening up the country to attack. Japan and South Korea would provide aid and investment; South Korea would also have to make at least modest cuts in its conventional forces in return for much deeper cuts in the oversized North Korean military.

Beyond the nuclear and conventional military issues, North Korea would also agree to verifiable elimination of its chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. It would cease counterfeiting and drug trafficking. It would have to let all Japanese kidnapping victims leave and begin a human rights dialogue with the outside world. It would continue to abstain from terrorism and provocative actions against its neighbors.

The United States would, for its part, ease trade sanctions immediately and ultimately lift them. It would, together with its regional partners and international financial institutions, provide at least $2 billion a year in aid to North Korea. The aid would not be in the form of cash (or new nuclear reactors), and would not be provided in one big dose but would be disbursed incrementally—while we watched to make sure North Korea was also holding up its end of the grand bargain.

Diplomatic ties and security assurances leading to a full peace treaty would also be appropriate.

Of course, this approach might well fail. North Korean leaders may, for example, believe they need nuclear weapons to deter the Bush administration from another preemptive action against another charter member of the axis of evil. But it would be a major mistake to act on that assumption before testing it. And if we try and fail, coercive policies may then become possible, as our regional partners will have a much harder time claiming that diplomacy has not yet been seriously attempted.