U.S. Should Reconsider North Korea Strategy, Experts Say

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration needs to re-examine its existing diplomatic efforts to contain North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, experts said in the wake of the Stalinist state’s latest provocations (see GSN, Dec. 6).

North Korea has displayed an increasingly confrontational stance in recent weeks. Last month, Pyongyang took observers by surprise with the choreographed unveiling of an operational uranium enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear site. A few days later the North launched an artillery attack on an inhabited South Korean island that left four dead and more than a dozen wounded (see GSN, Nov. 23).

Experts say there could be any number of reasons for the recent moves, including the regime’s traditional reliance on brinksmanship diplomacy and an ongoing leadership transition.

China last week called for the prompt resumption of talks by nations involved in the six-party process aimed at North Korean denuclearization (see related GSN story, today). The negotiations, which were last held two years ago, included the United States, Japan, both Koreas and Russia. The process produced denuclearization agreements in 2005 and 2007 and made limited progress toward shuttering the North’s atomic operations before petering out in 2008.

Pyongyang has sought a return to the six-nation discussions for more than a year; however, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul refuse to reconvene the talks until the North formally commits to giving up its arsenal.

“The six-party talks were one method of diplomacy that we tried. That doesn’t mean we have to go back to it,” said Northeast Asia security expert Balbina Hwang, a visiting professor at Georgetown University. “The idea that somehow conditions have changed that allows the six-party talks to resume is false.”

Washington must change its present bargaining stance on North Korea’s weapons by separating the goal of peace between Pyongyang and Seoul from overall nuclear disarmament, according to Hwang. The two Koreas signed an armistice that suspended but did not formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

“By not separating out those goals we are living under this delusion that here are the choices: either everything falls apart and we’re in this major crisis … or we are able to fix the problem diplomatically,” she told Global Security Newswire last week. “Those are not the only two choices. It’s not just those two extremes.”

Hwang suggested that if the six-nation talks resumed, they should be labeled as something else or possibly expanded to include other international partners, such as the European Union, to bring fresh perspectives and more stakeholders into the process.

She discouraged diplomats against resuming the suspended nuclear negotiations exactly where they left off, as those talks focused on the regime’s plutonium production and would not address the newly uncovered uranium enrichment site or the Stalinist regime’s proliferation of missile technology (see GSN, Dec. 6).

“We’re at a stage now where, whatever [the North Koreans] might have been willing to give up under the right circumstances in the past, do we believe that anyone in Pyongyang, including the dear leader, wants to give away the military’s biggest toy as a succession transfer looms?” said foreign policy specialist Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Earlier this year North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appointed his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and other family members to key posts within the ruling Korean Workers Party (see GSN, Sept. 29). The move was widely seen as preparing the younger Kim to eventually take over leadership of the nation.

The recent artillery attack and the March sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which both Washington and Seoul have blamed on Pyongyang, have been viewed as attempts by Kim Jong Il to solidify his son’s position with the military.

Bandow said any future negotiations should address an expanded number of scenarios, such as one that entertains the idea the North’s would never accept denuclearization.

“To some degree we need to seriously start talking about assuming the North is a nuclear power and it will stay one. Then what?” Bandow told GSN last week. He said diplomats must also be ready to draw up possible plans that assign responsibility for financial, security and humanitarian responses in the event Pyongyang collapses into political disarray.

“What we wouldn’t want is to see if there’s a messy implosion in the North and some fighting between different factions. … If China decided to send in troops and the South decided to send in troops, it’d be nice to have had prior discussions in terms of what happens,” Bandow said.

While the six-party talks are “desirable,” Washington must also be prepared to hold bilateral discussions with Pyongyang to thaw negotiations after a suspension of more than two years, according to Selig Harrison, head of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

“Bilateral negotiations leading to maybe trilateral” involving China, North Korea and the United States. “It doesn’t have to be all six parties,” he told GSN yesterday.

Harrison said last month’s careful unveiling of the uranium enrichment facility to U.S. observers was an attempt by Pyongyang to leverage the White House back into negotiations, dubbing it a “bargaining chip”

“They’re not about to enrich uranium but they’ve got something they hope they can trade because they very much need a settlement with the U.S.,” he said, noting that the starving, cash-strapped country of 23 million confronts an ever-increasing humanitarian crisis.

Harrison said the largest problem facing any new negotiations would be picking up where they left off in 2008, as the Obama administration “really doesn’t have a Korea policy because they’re basically concerned about looking soft on North Korea.”

“North Korea doesn’t make it easy for them, of course,” he added.

Another arms control expert said the reasons for the present diplomatic impasse goes back further than 2008.

“The Bush administration bears fundamental blame because they had a healthy, confident Kim Jong Il that they were dealing with and they had a deal and they let their own internal divisions about verification draw that deal out and they wasted an enormous amount of time,” according to Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies

He agreed that the Obama White House is somewhat at fault because administration officials “came in with a sense that they could control their priority list,” which included the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and engagement with Iran.

“There was no one who said the North Koreans are not going to be No. 4,” Lewis told GSN last week. “This administration was incredibly reactive for way too long and now that they’re turning to take it seriously, the situation in Pyongyang is pretty far gone.”

“I see no path to an agreement in the near-term,” he added.

For his part, Bandow said he had yet to see anyone within the White House grapple with what would be achievable in future talks.

“I wonder if to some extent there’s a rarefied discussion here in terms of what to do about the North,” he told GSN. “I think the likelihood of the North giving up its nuclear weapons; at least their existing arsenal … is very slim under even the best of circumstances and today doesn’t strike me as the best of circumstances.”