Try To Engage with Pyongyang

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

January 6, 2003

There was a time when the United States cared very deeply about the acquisition of the ultimate weapon by any other nation, friendly or not. In those now far off days, it cut off technological cooperation with its closest allies to delay their development of the atomic bomb. The Johnson and Nixon administrations persuaded the international community to accept a treaty barring any increase in the number of states possessing nuclear weapons.

Times have changed. North Korea has at least a couple of nuclear weapons, according to the most senior officials of the Bush administration, and has had them for some years. Secretary of State Colin Powell asks, “What are they going to do with another two or three nuclear weapons?” And with a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders he adds, “If they have a few more, they have a few more.”

Washington is wise to prefer diplomacy over war in dealing with North Korea. But it is strange that the Bush administration essentially shut down high-level contacts with Pyongyang soon after it took office.

Perhaps it was because Bush, as he has said, loathes Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. Perhaps it was because North Korea is contained on all sides by powerful neighbors. Or perhaps the contrast with Iraq shows that nuclear deterrence really works, even against a superpower.

Slow strangulation seems to be America’s preferred strategy to deal with the North Korean bomb. The trouble with this policy is that it is slow to produce results. North Korea for years has survived predictions of its imminent demise.

A certain urgency in Kim’s maneuvers suggests that he is in a hurry to stave off internal and external dangers to his survival. Perhaps he is simply trying to negotiate for economic help, using cards that have had some effect in the past. But it is equally likely that he is determined to acquire a robust nuclear weapons capability, suspecting that he is next in line after Iraq.

Can his nuclear program be rolled back? Koreans, both North and South, seem to favor a non-aggression pact as the key to ending Kim’s nuclear programs. Patching up the 1994 U.S.-$ North Korean Agreed Framework is favored by many others. Such approaches amount to chipping away at the problem bit by bit. This has been tried and has failed. A bolder approach is called for this time.

It is likely that only a comprehensive peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula would provide the diplomatic context for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions once and for all. Although Kim’s government has publicly rejected the idea of third-party mediation, some kind of multilateral effort, perhaps a Northeast Asian security conference, is urgently needed to derail North Korea’s drive to build a nuclear arsenal. The agenda must be a broad one.

As a first step, a peace settlement would include a verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as agreed by the two Koreas in 1991. But ultimately it must address other military issues in Korea and must include economic and political cooperation.

Lasting peace in the region will never happen in the absence of societal change in North Korea. The best hope for that is to open the country to outside influences—in short, through a policy of engagement.

To return to Powell’s question, does it make any difference whether Pyongyang has six or eight atomic bombs or only two? By accepting, however backhandedly, that North Korea is a virtual nuclear weapons state, the Bush administration has placed that country in the same category as India and Pakistan prior to their nuclear test explosions in 1998.

Those explosions changed the geopolitical landscape. A nuclear test explosion by North Korea would do so again. The message to several Asian nations that have perceived interests in acquiring nuclear weapons would be clear: Go for it.

The Bush administration has been slow to grasp the urgency of dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis. It seems to think that the United States has the luxury of dealing with crises one at a time. The writer, who is affiliated with the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, was chief negotiator of Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction agreements during the Clinton administration.