Negotiating with the North

Leon Sigal, Director, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Council, Social Science Research Council
published in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December 2003. (posted December 9, 2003)

China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia are all doing their part. Now the United States needs to get down to business.

After three years of doing what he could to repudiate his predecessor’s Korea policy, President George W. Bush now finds himself on the same precarious perch where President Bill Clinton stood in 1994 and again in late 1998. North Korea is developing nuclear arms and missile technology, but Bush is doing nothing effective to stop it. He is hoping that North Korea will collapse so he won’t have to deal with it as it is, but as he wishes it to be. In the meantime, he’s planning air strikes while trying to line up support for an economic embargo and naval blockade"a strategy that only alienates allies South Korea and Japan and antagonizes China. And he has been slow to grasp what his allies in Asia know"that pressure without negotiations won’t work with North Korea.

The North tried to kick-start negotiations in talks with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in Pyongyang in October 2002 and in three-party talks in April. In the bilateral talks, Kelly confronted North Korean negotiator Kang Sok-Ju over the North’s covert uranium enrichment program. (Contrary to U.S. claims, Kang did not acknowledge the program’s existence.) Kelly made it clear that Washington did not want talks: The North had to stop, or else.

Instead, the North responded by ratcheting up the current nuclear crisis.

At the three-party talks in Beijing, North Korean negotiator Li Gun took Kelly aside and told him North Korea had reprocessed plutonium and already had nuclear weapons. "We can’t dismantle them," Li reportedly told Kelly. "It’s up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them." Publicly, U.S. officials talked a lot about that, but made only passing reference to the self-styled "bold proposal" Pyongyang presented at the talks. The North would first freeze, and then dismantle, its nuclear programs under inspection. In return it asked for a formal accord pledging nonaggression and noninterference in its internal affairs, as well as a U.S. commitment not to impede improved North Korean political and economic ties with South Korea and Japan. It asked for light-water reactors to be completed, and for electricity in the interim.

North Korea often floats concessions on a tide of threats. When U.S. officials play up the threat, not the concessions, that’s what makes news.

The three-party talks were no exception. It happened again at the six-party talks this August. "It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons," the North’s negotiator, Kim Yong Il, said. "We can dismantle our nuclear program if the United States makes a switchover in its hostile policy towards us and does not pose any threat to us." The North no longer insisted on a nonaggression pact as a first step. Instead, Kim said, Pyongyang would "clarify its will to dismantle its nuclear program if the United States makes clear its will to give up its hostile policy."

With this agreement in principle, the United States would resume shipments of heavy fuel oil and "sharply increase" food aid. Kim then spelled out a series of simultaneous steps. The North "will allow the refreeze of our nuclear facility and nuclear substance, and monitoring and inspection of them from the time the United States has concluded a non-aggression treaty with the DPRK [North Korea] and compensated [it] for the loss of electricity." Next, it will settle the missile issue""put on ice its missile test-firing and stop its [missile] export""once the United States and Japan open diplomatic relations. Next, it "will dismantle [its] nuclear facility from the time the [light-water reactors] are completed," as promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Dropping the ball, again

North Korea had reason to expect the United States would respond with a new proposal of its own. Yet U.S. negotiator James Kelly only hinted at new flexibility without spelling it out. One U.S. official said the North Koreans would no longer "have to do everything before they would hear anything." The suggestion was so vague that the North Koreans did not catch it at first, nor apparently did anyone else. And Kelly refused to elaborate in a bilateral meeting just after the plenary session, instead telling Kim, "Read my statement carefully. Have Kim Jong Il read my statement."

Kim reacted by warning that if the United States was unwilling to negotiate, North Korea would have "no choice but to declare its possession of nuclear weapons" and "conduct a nuclear weapons test."

This threat was widely reported in the U.S. press. Elsewhere, reports were different: The North’s offer, as well as progress on the issue of the return of Japanese citizens abducted years ago by the North, led Japanese representative Mitoji Yabunaka to characterize the talks as "very substantial and beneficial for finding ways to resolve the nuclear standoff." South Korea’s deputy chief representative, Wi Sung-Lac, was similarly upbeat: "From what the North Koreans said during the meeting, we could read that North Korea is willing to resolve the issue through dialogue." Chinese negotiator Wang Yi said the talks "helped make a very important step forward toward a final peaceful settlement of the issue," adding bluntly that "America’s policy toward the DPRK"this is the main problem we are facing."

Back in 1994 and 1999, when the Clinton administration ran off course, others stepped in to provide direction. In 1994, Jimmy Carter brought the United States back from the brink of war by undermining the Clinton sanctions strategy and buying time for diplomatic give-and-take to work. In 1999, William Perry, former secretary of defense, stopped the drift in North Korea policy by grabbing the helm.

Perry reached three conclusions. First, "the urgent focus of U.S. policy toward the DPRK must be to end its nuclear weapons and long-range missile-related activities"; second, the way to achieve these aims is to reassure North Korea and satisfy its security and economic concerns; and third, "no U.S. policy toward the DPRK will succeed if [South Korea] and Japan do not actively support it and cooperate in its implementation."

North Korea has been trying to end enmity with the United States using a strategy of tit for tat"cooperating when the United States cooperates and retaliating when Washington reneges. South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia are urging engagement too, setting aside a century of mutual rivalry and animosity to try to coax the United States into negotiating with North Korea. They have yet to succeed.

Although Washington has yet to make a counterproposal, it still insists it is seeking a "diplomatic solution." Winston Churchill would have called that claim a "terminological inexactitude," his clever way to get around a rule in Parliament against accusing fellow members of lying. The Bush administration is propagating other inexactitudes as well"all designed to keep the six-party talks from turning into negotiations, and all at odds with the facts.

One inexactitude is that North Korea is determined to have nuclear weapons, so negotiating is an exercise in futility. The truth is, Pyongyang has said repeatedly it will verifiably dismantle its plutonium and uranium programs, including any weapons it may have.

It will not give them away for nothing, though. North Korea wants a written pledge that the United States won’t attack, attempt to overthrow its government, or impede its economic development by continuing to impose sanctions and discouraging aid and investment from South Korea and Japan.

North Korea insists on dealing directly with the United States, whether or not China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia are also at the negotiating table because none of them can provide security assurances on behalf of the United States. For the past two years the North has been talking nonstop with South Korea and Japan to assure that aid and investment from them is part of any deal.

Until a deal is struck, North Korea will keep reprocessing plutonium and generating more spent nuclear fuel in its Yongbyon reactor. It will also continue to build gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. It wants an agreement in principle committing the United States to satisfying its security and economic concerns before it stops. This is intended to underscore North Korea’s basic stance that as long as the United States remains its foe, it will seek nuclear arms and missiles to counter the threat, but it will stop if the United States ends enmity.

Another inexactitude advanced by the administration is that after 1994 Washington kept its word while Pyongyang cheated. As President Bush said on March 6, "My predecessor, in a good-faith effort, entered into a framework agreement. The United States honored its side of the agreement; North Korea didn’t. While we felt the agreement was in force, North Korea was enriching uranium."

Here, Bush’s advisers have misinformed him. The fact is, Washington got what it most wanted from the 1994 agreement, a freeze of Pyongyang’s plutonium program, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans captured control of Congress in elections just days after the Agreed Framework was signed, they denounced the deal as appeasement. Leery of taking them on, the Clinton administration backpedaled on implementation. It did little easing of sanctions until 2000. Reactor construction was slow to start. Although it pledged to provide the two reactors "by a target date of 2003," concrete for the first foundation was not poured until August 2002. It did deliver heavy fuel oil, but seldom on schedule. Above all, the United States did not live up to its pledge in Article II of the Agreed Framework to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations""in plain English, to end enmity and lift economic sanctions.

In 1997, when Washington was slow to fulfill the terms of the accord, Pyongyang threatened to break the agreement. The North’s acquisition of technology to enrich uranium from Pakistan began soon thereafter"in 1998, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell. It began with a pilot program, not the operational capability the North moved to acquire in 2001 after the Bush administration refused to negotiate and listed the country as a potential target for nuclear attack.

A third terminological inexactitude is that North Korea is on the verge of collapse and that an economic embargo and naval blockade will bring it down. As all the North’s neighbors know, such an effort would bring about a speedup of the North’s nuclear program much sooner than it would bring about collapse.

By propagating these inexactitudes, the administration is deceiving itself by failing to distinguish what it knows from what it needs to know.

What it "knows" about North Korea is blinkered by ideology. That ideology is rooted in traditional American beliefs about foreign policy"realism, on the one hand, and classical liberalism on the other, supported by a few selective facts.

When realists look at North Korea, they see an insecure state whose nuclear arming is inevitable and nuclear disarming, especially through political cooperation, exceedingly unlikely.

When liberals think of North Korea, what comes to mind are goose-stepping troops and gulags; a regime motivated by paranoid hostility to dig tunnels and menace its neighbors; a command economy that makes little for the world to buy except missiles or nuclear material; a terrorist state that committed horrific acts in the past, like its 1950 aggression and the 1983 Rangoon bombing that barely missed South Korea’s president and killed 17 members of his entourage. It is a core tenet of liberalism that bad states cause war, and North Korea, with its one-man rule, internal regimentation, cult of personality, and dogmatic devotion to the ideology of juche, is a decidedly bad state. That’s what Americans know about North Korea.

The wisest analyst I know once wrote, "Finding the truth about the North’s nuclear program is an example of how what we ‘know’ sometimes leads us away from what we need to learn."

Time is on their side

What have we learned about North Korea’s nuclear intentions and capabilities? By January 2003 Pyongyang had lit three nuclear fuses, all of them long. It has since lit a shorter nuclear fuse as well.

The North is making equipment to enrich uranium. U.S. intelligence believes that North Korea "is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational," which will not be until "mid-decade." In other words, the uranium enrichment fuse is more than two years long.

In January, after the United States suspended the shipments of heavy fuel oil promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea resumed production of plutonium by refueling and restarting its reactor at Yongbyon, which had been frozen under the accord. That reactor can generate a bomb’s worth of plutonium by year’s end. Allowing at least six months to reprocess and weaponize the plutonium, the North could have a nuclear device by late spring, another device a year later, and five or six in five years.

Pyongyang also resumed construction of two reactors frozen under the 1994 accord. It will take at least two years to finish the first, longer to complete the second. Were all three reactors up and running, they could generate 30 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.

North Korea has recently lit a shorter fuse by reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel that had been in storage under the Agreed Framework. If it ran its reprocessing plant at full speed"which it has not"it could extract five or six bombs’ worth of plutonium and fabricate the plutonium into nuclear devices by year’s end.

These nuclear fuses are real. By contrast, even though the North says it has nuclear weapons, only insiders in Pyongyang know for sure. A divided U.S. intelligence community estimated in November 1993, nearly a year before the Agreed Framework was signed, that "it was more likely than not" that the North had "one, possibly two" nuclear devices. That estimate was later reduced to one. The evidence on which it was based has not changed.

Many in Washington say that Pyongyang has violated its commitments and should be punished. Both that assessment, and the policy that flows from it, are wrong. North Korea is no Iraq. It has said it is willing to stop its nuclear, missile, and other arms programs. In return it wants the United States to stop treating it like an enemy.

Does North Korea mean what it says? There is no way of knowing without putting an offer on the table that satisfies both sides’ interests. We do know that in October 1994, Pyongyang froze all work at facilities that by now could be making at least 30 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year. That is a real nuclear weapons program. Its enrichment effort, by contrast, won’t be ready to produce much weapons-grade uranium until mid-decade at the earliest.

A prudent response would be to probe North Korea’s intentions through diplomatic give-and-take. Instead, the administration has made worst-case assessments and embraced rash policies"threatening economic coercion and even air strikes, which run a high risk of war.

What does the United States want?

Before plunging over the brink, the United States needs to make a mid-course correction, deciding where it wants to go and drawing up a road map to get there.

What are U.S. goals with respect to North Korea?

Some may prefer regime change, but compelling the collapse of the North is far too risky, especially if the first four aims have not been achieved. Others say North Korea must reform its economy"that they will oppose engagement or aid until it does. Encouraging reform makes sense; insisting on it as a precondition for engagement does not. It would be doctrinaire to put free-market ideology ahead of security. What does it matter how North Korea runs its economy so long as it does not threaten its neighbors?

The United States also wants to promote human rights in North Korea. But it is one thing to raise human rights concerns, quite another to insist on progress on human rights as a precondition for engagement. Doing so would foreclose rather than facilitate contact with ordinary North Koreans at a time when contact is still very limited. Indeed, the actions some are taking in the name of human rights"organizing North Koreans to rush into embassies in China to dramatize the denial of rights, or seeking to generate massive emigration to cause the North’s collapse"aggravate rather than alleviate conditions. They may have helped a handful of North Koreans to qualify for refugee status and asylum in South Korea, but they have also provoked clampdowns on cross-border traffic, impeding North Koreans by the thousands who slip into China to bring home food and other necessities, and who may act as agents of change on their return.

How can the United States attain these goals? Coercion will not work. The only way is to test whether North Korea is willing to cooperate.

So far, refusing to negotiate has merely provoked the North to accelerate its nuclear program. That’s fine with hardliners who hope to impose an economic embargo and naval blockade to strangle it to death or at least keep it from exporting arms. None of the North’s neighbors are ready to cut off food and oil, however, without a good-faith U.S. effort to negotiate. So the hardliners are seeking to interdict illegal acts like drug smuggling and counterfeiting"a mere pinprick. A blockade of more serious stuff would be easy for the North to evade"a bomb’s worth of plutonium, the size of a softball, can be stowed on board an unflagged freighter or transported by air or truck.

The hardliners’ intransigence is jeopardizing the U.S. position in Asia by eroding political support in Japan and South Korea. U.S. allies know that before an embargo is imposed, the U.S. commander in Korea will want to put more troops on the ground and get American dependents out. That could bring the alliance with South Korea to the breaking point.

Failure to negotiate could also put the U.S. military presence in play in Japanese politics by alienating supporters of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and by strengthening the hand of Japanese right-wingers who insist "Japan can say no" to Washington and who want Tokyo to look after its own security, unbound by the U.S. alliance. When a time bomb was discovered in September at the home of the top Foreign Ministry official dealing with North Korea, along with a note calling him a "traitor," Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, reacted in a revealing way: "I think it was deserved." If the Bush administration doesn’t learn to play well with others, it will find itself dealing with others who don’t play.

Beyond baby steps

What happens next? The United States cannot afford another of what Jack Pritchard, who just resigned as special U.S. representative, calls "drive-by meetings . . . where we roll down the window and we kind of wave to the North Koreans and we move on." The September 5 Washington Post quotes one unnamed allied diplomat who attended the talks: "The time has come for the United States to lay down its cards. You need to play the game." A good-faith U.S. effort to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear and missile arming starts with a road map.

The first priority is to stop North Korea from generating any more spent fuel or reprocessing it to extract the plutonium, and to halt its uranium enrichment program. In return for freezing production, Pyongyang would get the heavy fuel oil and increased food aid it needs and an agreement in principle to improve political and economic relations, specifically including a written pledge at an appropriate time not to attack it, impede its economic development, or interfere in its internal affairs.

Next, arrangements should be made for the resumption of inspections of North Korea’s plutonium facilities and access to its enrichment sites. The North wants U.S. inspections, which it sees as a means to improve relations. That implies that it will grant greater access as relations improve and that International Atomic Energy Agency inspections will come later. Pyongyang may reopen access to its plutonium sites before extending access to its enrichment facilities. A key step will be for the North to disclose where all its enrichment activities are located. That would facilitate monitoring by national technical means, in advance of negotiating detailed on-site inspections. Written security assurances would be provided at this stage.

The third step is dismantling. The United States initially demanded that the North dismantle its enrichment program before it would even hold talks, but that made no sense. The last thing the United States should want is for dismantling to take place without inspectors to witness it, as in Iraq. Since the uranium enrichment program is not yet operational, it may be easier for Pyongyang to dismantle it than it would be to dismantle the plutonium reactors and reprocessing plant.

To judge from negotiations in 1994 and since, the North sees any plutonium reprocessed before 1992 (or any weapons it may have fabricated from that plutonium) as its ace in the hole, which it will not yield until it feels secure from U.S. attack. On the other hand, Pyongyang has hinted it would be willing to give up the five or six bombs’ worth of plutonium it removed from its Yongbyon reactor in 1994, which is now stored in casks under U.S. supervision. A quid pro quo is likely to be electricity, and other forms of aid, and investment from South Korea and Japan.

The North’s missile program might be dealt with in parallel. The first priority is just what the North offered in Beijing"a ban on test launches and exports of missile technology"an offer first made by Kim Jong Il in talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang in October 2000. The North wanted compensation for lost revenue, but agreed to accept it in kind, not in cash. An export ban would need to be bolstered by a verifiable ban on missile production, followed by a ban on deployment and the dismantling of its medium- and longer-range missiles. Transparency measures could be modeled on those of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the Soviet Union.

Again, Pyongyang came partway in October 2000 when Kim Jong Il tabled the makings of a deal to freeze testing, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range of 500 kilometers or more. That covered the No Dong, Taepo Dong I and II, and arguably the Scud-C. In return, the United States offered to arrange for the launch of two or three North Korean satellites a year. One way to verify the freeze would be to draw on the precedent of an underground nuclear site at Kumchang-ni, where North Korea has allowed U.S. inspectors two visits and suggested permanent monitoring in the form of a joint venture. Above all, to symbolize an end to enmity, the North will expect the president to visit Pyongyang.

An end to the North’s biological weapons program will have to wait. Though active, the program has yet to yield much in the way of weapons. Eliminating its chemical weapons and production and reducing its conventional forces can also wait. However, the North has expressed its readiness to negotiate on all three.

On August 29, 2002, Undersecretary of State John Bolton said in Seoul that the North had an active chemical weapons program and that it had "one of the most robust bioweapons programs on earth . . . in stark violation of the Biological Weapons Convention." On August 31, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, after repeating all of Bolton’s concerns, said, "The DPRK clarified more than once that if the United States has a willingness to drop its hostile policy toward the DPRK, it will have dialogue with the United States to clear the United States of its worries over its security."

In short, the North has said that all the security issues the United States cares about are negotiable. So the time has come to put that to the test. The United States needs to show it is willing to negotiate step by step"and this time to keep any promises it makes.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea (1998).