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On the Record

Former Negotiator Warns Bush: Last Chance for Diplomacy with North Korea

The following is Paul Kerr’s write-up of his interview with Charles Pritchard.

One glance at the wall in Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard’s new office lined with magazine covers of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il makes clear that the veteran diplomat may have left the State Department, but his interest in striking a deal to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons remains undiminished.

Pritchard left his post as chief U.S. interlocutor with North Korea in late August. Since leaving the executive branch, this often lonely voice for more intensive diplomacy has prodded the Bush administration to engage Kim’s regime in arms control talks, a case he made in a 45-minute interview with Arms Control Today Oct. 28.

The United States wants North Korea to dismantle its recently-restarted plutonium-based nuclear facilities and suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program, both of which can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Two previous rounds of talks have not resulted in agreements.

Another round of six party talks is likely to occur, Pritchard said, but he warned that they might well be Washington’s final opportunity to shut down North Korea’s weapons programs. And he fretted that despite President George W. Bush’s recent statements that he will support a security agreement with North Korea, the administration has so far put “no substance on the table.”

“The North Koreans, if they believe that there’s nothing in it for them and we haven’t got our act together” will not return for a next round of talks, Pritchard said. A diplomatic breakdown, he warned, could lead to a sizeable North Korean nuclear arsenal. “This thing has the potential of getting well out of hand,” he said.

In particular, Pritchard said it was possible that North Korea would sell nuclear materials to terrorists or other rogue states if negotiations fail. He acknowledged that his assessment of the likelihood of that threat had changed in the last few years. Until “a couple of years ago,” Pritchard said, North Koreans were “trending away from what we would view as legitimate state sponsors of terrorism.”

Asked why the administration has not gone further in its diplomatic efforts, Pritchard said that “a wide range of views within the administration” has inhibited the administration’s ability to develop “a single, focused effort.”

To maximize the possibilities for a diplomatic breakthrough, Pritchard said the United States should concentrate on persuading North Korea to freeze its plutonium-based nuclear facilities, arguing that the less-developed uranium enrichment program is a much longer-term threat. Pyongyang’s current efforts to reprocess the spent fuel from previous operations of its reactor have “the potential” to yield enough material to give North Korea a total of between six and ten nuclear devices “in the very near future,” he said.

Obtaining such a freeze and addressing North Korea’s perceptions of a military threat from the United States “simultaneously and early will set the stage for the longer-term prospects that would include some form of economic developmental assistance” that could be coupled with a termination of the uranium enrichment program, he continued.

Commenting on preparations for a next round of talks, Pritchard expressed concern that the administration will agree to a date for a next round of talks before having a complete proposal. This approach will allow “those who are opposed to this level and direction” of diplomacy to “stall” the process. If that happens, “time will run out and then there will be a compromise and something less than sufficient will go forward.”

Pritchard stressed the need for a “sustained bilateral dialogue” between the United States and North Korea and recommended that the United States initiate a multilateral working-level meeting “ahead of the six-party talks to get most of the substantive work done.”

Speaking on how an agreement could be verified, an issue which “remains unresolved within the administration,” Pritchard cautioned that obtaining a completely verifiable deal from North Korea ought not become a stumbling block to a settlement. He characterized as “ridiculous” the notion held by some U.S. officials that an acceptable agreement must be “100 percent verifiable.”

Pritchard added that verifiably shutting down North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear program in a manner acceptable to Pyongyang would be “relatively easy.” He admitted that verifying the elimination of the uranium enrichment program would “be a little bit trickier,” but said the United States should accept a deal if it “looks reasonable” because “if they cheat in the future, we will find out” through national intelligence sources.

He also warned against the alternatives to successful negotiations, arguing that increasing pressure on North Korea in hopes of overthrowing Kim Jong-Il’s regime would fail. Describing the North Korean government as “relatively stable,” Pritchard continued: “In the near term, is there anything on the horizon that suggests that regime change is imminent? No. Nothing. Zero.” He added that, based on accounts of recent visitors to North Korea, its economy “is inexplicably better off than it was a year ago…if you’re looking for things to implode because they’re getting worse, [they don’t] appear to be.”

Moreover, he said that key regional powers, particularly China, would be unlikely to support U.S. efforts to further pressure Pyongyang. “We’ve reached a peak” with Beijing in terms of its willingness to pressure North Korea “because of what the Chinese have perceived as a relatively poor showing by the [United States] in the April and August talks,” Pritchard said. The Chinese “fully expected that the [United States] would have a more mature and flexible approach in April. That was absolutely not the case.” At the time, in fact, he worried that the Chinese “might very well have walked away from their commitment to the six party talks” as a consequence.

Pritchard further cautioned that Washington should not use the talks merely as a means to gain support for a containment policy as opposed to reaching a genuine diplomatic resolution. “The other parties will not buy into it,” he warned.

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