A New Approach to North Korea

Charles L. Pritchard and Michael E. O’Hanlon

The Bush administration’s basic policy toward North Korea is not going well. Without a clearer strategy, pursued with strong U.S. leadership, we are almost certain to fail in our efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

The policy-making confusion was evident during Condoleezza Rice’s first trip to Asia as secretary of state. She made several statements intended to encourage Kim Jong Il to resume serious negotiations at the six-party talks under way since 2003. She explicitly recognized North Korea’s sovereignty and promised security assurances and economic help if it would denuclearize. Yet she also called North Korea an outpost of tyranny. She further voiced thinly veiled threats that the United States might address the North Korea problem outside of the six-party negotiation process, perhaps implying that Washington would demand that the U.N. Security Council consider economic sanctions.

Ms. Rice’s thinking is understandable. But her words create concerns, in South Korea and China as well as North Korea, that the United States is not truly sincere in trying to resolve the nuclear crisis diplomatically.

The Bush administration is making four fundamentally wrong assumptions in its current policy on North Korea.

The first is that the six-party format, created by the administration in 2003, automatically works to our advantage. Much is to be said for a negotiating forum that brings together China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the United States to deal with a problem that affects us all. But the original logic that such a format would isolate Stalinist North Korea has not worked. There is a consensus that the peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons. But there is no agreement on how to achieve that common goal.

Except Japan, other countries in the talks do not think the Bush administration has offered North Korea enough incentives. They also have at least a smidgen of sympathy for North Korea’s strategic position in light of the administration’s doctrine of pre-emption. Without going so far as to condone a North Korean nuclear arsenal, they understand why a charter member of the “axis of evil” would see such weapons as advantageous, particularly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The second incorrect assumption is that other participants in the talks trust our intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear programs. But the Iraq experience makes that dubious. So do recent reports that when briefing Chinese and South Korean officials, the United States exaggerated North Korea’s past role in shipping uranium gas to Libya. Unfortunately, our credibility has been called into question just when North Korean recalcitrance was working in our favor.

The third incorrect assumption is that China can find a new mix of carrots and sticks to sway North Korea to negotiate seriously. There is nothing wrong in principle with asking China to play an even greater role in the talks. And in theory, Beijing might threaten to cut off aid to North Korea or curtail trade. But those approaches are implausible in light of China’s views that Washington has not negotiated with Pyongyang in good faith in avoiding the destabilization of an immediate neighbor.

The United States, by contrast, can offer to give North Korea much more aid, to lift trade sanctions, to approve World Bank and IMF loans, to seal a security pact and to establish diplomatic ties. It should not do so unconditionally. But unless these U.S. carrots are unambiguously offered in exchange for North Korean concessions on the nuclear issue, other security matters and domestic reforms, Pyongyang is unlikely to budge.

Finally, the Bush administration seems to assume that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will intimidate North Korea into better behavior. But leaders in Pyongyang know how strained U.S. military forces are today and how vociferously South Korea would oppose any use of U.S. force on the peninsula under current conditions.

The administration needs a new North Korea strategy. It should show the kind of flexibility toward North Korea that it has wisely decided to use with Iran recently. It should offer North Korea concrete, major benefits if Pyongyang will agree to eliminate its nuclear weapons and take other broad steps that begin a process of reform similar to what Vietnam adopted 25 years ago.

Should talks then fail, the United States could not be blamed for having stacked the deck against their success in advance and might gain more key regional support to make North Korea pay a price for its egregious behavior.