In October 2002, James Kelly, US assistant secretary of state, led a delegation to Pyongyang to confront North Korean officials on America’s knowledge of their secret highly enriched uranium (HEU) programme. At first, Kim Gye-gwan, vice-minister for foreign affairs, denied the existence of the programme. He said it was another false accusation, like the charge the US had made in August 1998 that North Korea had a secret underground nuclear facility at Kumchang-ri.
In a brief meeting with Kang Sok-ju, first vice-minister for foreign affairs and Mr Kim’s boss, a different line emerged. Mr Kang defiantly acknowledged the HEU programme. He indicated that if the US recognised North Korea’s system of government, concluded a peace agreement pledging non-aggression and did not interfere in his country’s economic development, Pyongyang would seriously discuss US concerns about the HEU programme.
The request for security assurances was not new. North Korea sought them during the negotiations that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. But what North Korea means by security assurances has undoubtedly evolved in the past 10 years, as its economy has deteriorated and America’s military pre-eminence has become clearer.
I am struck by what Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, said to Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, in October 2000. He told her that in the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, was able to conclude that China faced no external security threat and could accordingly refocus its resources on economic development. With the appropriate security assurances, Mr Kim said, he would be able to convince his military that the US was no longer a threat and then be in a similar position to refocus his country’s resources.
In a cash-strapped country that devotes, by some estimates, 34 per cent of its gross domestic product to its military, there is little left for economic development. Yet Mr Kim cannot change course overnight. He needs to be able to convince his power base—the military—that the US is no longer a threat that warrants a nuclear programme or such a large expenditure on conventional forces. Make no mistake, Mr Kim is not motivated by a desire to improve his people’s standard of living. He simply wants his regime to survive. But whatever the motivation, the US should be encouraging any change that moves North Korea away from military belligerence and towards enhancing citizens’ economic well-being.
The security assurance that Pyongyang has requested and the security assurance that is possible and appropriate are two different things. Since last October the conditions Mr Kang laid down have evolved into a request for a legally binding non-aggression treaty approved by the US Senate. That is neither possible nor appropriate.
While I advocate giving Pyongyang a multilateral security guarantee, America should work out the details bilaterally with North Korea. Do we really want China and Russia—with Japan and South Korea, the other parties to the six-nation talks with North Korea—crafting the language of a security guarantee that binds the US?
The purpose of any guarantee must be to remove obstacles in the search for a solution to the current nuclear crisis and for a more permanent resolution of the unhealthy situation on the Korean peninsula. If it also provides Mr Kim with the rationale he needs to persuade his military to support economic reform, so much the better.
Ideally, the guarantee would be conditional, at least at first. North Korea would have to commit verifiably to give up its entire nuclear programme and immediately freeze its plutonium programme—currently the US’s greatest concern. The guarantee would remain conditional and in force as long as North Korea maintained the freeze and was actively dismantling its nuclear programme. It would become permanent on satisfactory compliance with the terms established by the six parties for a complete and verifiable end to the North’s nuclear programme.
As a multilateral instrument, the guarantee would commit China and Russia to a resolution of the nuclear problem. If Pyongyang failed to terminate its nuclear programme satisfactorily, all the nations that really matter to its ultimate survival would impose punitive measures.
This approach would put North Korea on notice that the US is serious about dealing with its concerns and expects Pyongyang to come to the next round of six-party talks prepared to commit to ending its nuclear programme. Such a commitment, together with a freeze on North Korea’s current nuclear activities, must be the minimum acceptable outcome for those talks. Anything less would be a failure. Giving North Korea a multilateral security guarantee will move us in the right direction.