U.S. Interests And Goals On The Korean Peninsula

Leon Sigal, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, May 2003.

This paper examines U.S. interests and long-term goals on the Korean Peninsula and strategies for achieving them. A review of U.S. actions over the past decade and North Korean responses, including its actions this fall, suggests the D.P.R.K. is willing to satisfy U.S. security aims in face-to-face negotiations.

U.S. Interests
What U.S. interests should take priority with North Korea at this time?

First, the United States wants to assure that, whatever happens internally in North Korea, the artillery Pyongyang has emplaced within range of Seoul is never fired in anger.

Second, it wants to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear arms.

Third, it wants to prevent the North from developing, testing, deploying and selling any more ballistic missiles.

Fourth, it wants a ban on biological and chemical weapons.

Fifth, it seeks reconciliation between the two Koreas.

Some would prefer to seek regime change, but compelling the collapse of North Korea is far too risky a course, especially if the United States has not achieved its first four aims. Others insist North Korea must reform its economy and oppose engagement or aid until it does. Encouraging reform makes sense; insisting on reform as a precondition for engagement does not. It would be doctrinaire to put free market ideology ahead of U.S. security. How much do Americans care how North Korea runs its economy so long as it does not threaten its neighbors?

The United States has an interest in human rights in North Korea. After all, American values are U.S. interests. Again, it is one thing to raise human rights concerns with North Korea, and quite another to make human rights progress a precondition for engagement at this juncture. Doing so could foreclose rather than facilitate contact with ordinary North Koreans at a time when such contact, a potential engine of change in the North, is still very limited. Indeed, some actions taken in the name of human rights aggravate rather than alleviate human rights conditions in North Korea. Those who seek to dramatize the denial of rights in the D.P.R.K. by organizing North Koreans to rush into embassies in China hope to generate massive migration from the North and cause its collapse. They may help the handful who gain entry to qualify for refugee status and eventual asylum in South Korea, but that is almost certain to impede cross-border traffic with China, preventing North Koreans by the thousands from importing food and other necessities and from acting as agents of change.

Satisfying U.S. security interests would make it possible to address longer-term U.S. goals in Northeast Asia:

First, maintain a cooperative relationship with China while coaxing China to engage in multilateral, not just bilateral cooperation, on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

Second, begin to create a cooperative security regime in Korea and the region rather than rely solely on a balance of power to assure U.S. and allied security.

Third, actively nurture more far-reaching economic reform in North Korea.

Fourth, in a context of increasing security and accelerating economic reform, encourage a relaxation of repression in North Korea.

Fifth, peaceful reunification of Korea.

The first stage of cooperative threat reduction is arms control, which necessarily involves a modicum of collaboration and mutual reassurance among potential foes. Cooperative security is more demanding. It rests on the premise that premeditated war is out of the question. Once countries recognize that they have no intention of waging war on one another, mutual deterrence is no longer salient. Yet the military postures, plans and practices of deterrence remain. To unwind those postures requires far more thoroughgoing forms of military collaboration and reciprocity than arms control contemplates in order for countries to reassure one another that they have no intention of going to war. It also requires extensive engagement, both political and military, to prevent threats to the peace from arising in the first place.

U.S. Strategy
Engagement with North Korea is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If U.S. interests are to improve its security and that of its allies and to promote reconciliation between the Koreas, the only way to achieve them is to test whether North Korea is willing to cooperate. Coercion will not work; it will only impede reconciliation with South Korea and ensure that the North deploys more artillery near the demilitarized zone, accelerates efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and tests, deploys and sells more missiles.

Yet the United States has tried coercion on occasion in the past and is doing so now. On June 1, 2002, President Bush did not specify his target when he spoke about waging preventive war on proliferators. Seldom are proponents of coercion explicit about threatening war with North Korea. They speak of putting pressure on it, isolating it and embargoing trade to compel its obedience or its collapse. Even economic sanctions raise the risk of war, a risk that most South Koreans or Japanese are not ready to run. Without a willingness to wage war, coercion is mere bluff. If North Korea were to call that bluff, it could undermine political support for the U.S. alliance in South Korea and Japan. That was a serious concern as the United States stumbled to the brink of war with North Korea in June 1994. It would be a serious concern if another crisis with North Korea were to arise now.
Besides coercive containment, the United States and South Korea have pursued three other strategies to change North Korea's behavior: benign neglect, conditional engagement, unconditional engagement, and reciprocal engagement.

Benign neglect is also intended to bring about the collapse of the North. Providing aid and investment, proponents of benign neglect believe, only props up the regime and prolongs North Korea's survival; withholding investment and infrastructure aid and limiting food and humanitarian assistance will cause its demise. But what if it does not go quietly into that good night? Even if it did, collapse could loose millions of refugees to flee south for sustenance. Neglect could prove not very benign for either South Korea or the United States.

Others want to condition engagement on North Korean reform. Yet such conditionality is counter-productive. Change will come to North Korea as aid and investment bring more outsiders into North Korea from business, NGOs, governments, and international agencies. That is possible only if Pyongyang is willing to cooperate and let them in. So far it has tightly controlled access, limiting the number of foreign factory managers who work there, walling off South Korea tourists at Mount Kumgang, no doubt carefully screening the participants in family reunions, sending just a chosen few abroad for training, and causing KEDO to import labor from Uzbekistan instead of hiring North Koreans. Yet, as engagement expands, Pyongyang will be hard-pressed to forestall fraternization.

Some favor unconditional engagement in the belief that it reassures the North, encouraging expanded contact that will bring about internal change. Disputing the evidence of change in North Korea, critics have wrongly accused Kim Dae Jung of giving away the store without getting much in return. The amount of aid and investment from the South has been small, a pittance if measured against North Korea's needs and South Korea's wealth. Yet its political significance has loomed large. Given the level of mistrust on both sides, unconditional engagement was not so much a gesture of magnanimity as a prudent first move, reassuring a much weaker North that the South did not seek its collapse. Nor was it unreciprocated. It gave North Korea a stake in sustaining a freeze of its known nuclear program, which could have generated at least a hundred bombs' worth of plutonium by now, and it led to a moratorium on missile testing, both of which benefit South Korea's security. Yet the public disillusionment generated by the criticism shows how engagement without reciprocity is politically unsustainable for long both in Seoul and Washington.

That leaves reciprocal engagement, which was the strategy pursued in tandem by South Korea and the United States in 1991 and again in 2000, the most fruitful years of dealing with North Korea. In 1991 it helped induce the North to suspend reprocessing plutonium at Yongbyon that fall and led to the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation that December. In 2000 it yielded the first ever North-South summit meeting and the makings of a deal to freeze North Korea's missile programs and end its missile exports.
In 2001 and 2002 the D.P.R.K. repeatedly affirmed its willingness to satisfy all five U.S. aims through diplomatic give-and-take with the United States. Recognizing that, Japan and South Korea have moved to engage with the North. Yet hard-line unilateralists in the Bush administration and Congress oppose reciprocal engagement. As they continue to get their way, they are putting the United States on a collision course with South Korea and Japan, undermining political support for the alliance and jeopardizing the U.S. troop presence in both countries.

North Korea's Tit-for-Tat Strategy

In the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung decided he had no better way to provide for his country's security than to end its lifelong enmity with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. In the early 1990s the Bush administration, determined to put a stop to Pyongyang's nuclear arming before easing its isolation, impeded closer South Korean and Japanese ties to the North. Concluding that Washington held the key to open doors to Seoul and Tokyo, Pyongyang engaged seriously with Seoul and Tokyo over the ensuing decade only when it was convinced Washington was cooperating.

Pyongyang also decided to trade in its nuclear arms program in return for an end to enmity. At the same time it kept its nuclear option open as leverage on Washington to live up to its end of the bargain. That became the basis of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby the North agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear arms program in return for two new light -water reactors (LWR) for generating nuclear power, an interim supply of heavy fuel oil, some relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions, and, above all to North Korea, gradual improvement of relations. Washington got what it most wanted up front, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans took control of Congress in elections just weeks later, they denounced the deal as appeasement. Unwilling to challenge Congress, the Clinton administration back-pedaled on implementation. Pyongyang was deeply disappointed. After all, it reasoned, if Washington was willing to supply nuclear reactors, it would surely put an end to enmity. When the United States was slow to fulfill the terms of the October 1994 accord, North Korea threatened to break it. Pyongyang also resolved to try again to end enmity, this time using its missiles as inducement.

In February 1997 Pyongyang began warning it would no longer be bound by the accord if Washington failed to uphold it. That played into growing suspicions in the U.S. intelligence community that an underground site at Kumchang-ni might be nuclear-related. In late April 1998 the North stopped canning the plutonium-laden spent fuel at Yongbyon, but only after all the 8,000 or so intact fuel rods were put in casks and nothing but nuclear sludge from a few disintegrating rods remained. It also said it would need to reopen the reactor at Yongbyon for maintenance. Its effort to acquire equipment for enriching uranium probably dates back to this time. Had North Korea wanted to break the 1994 accord, it could thrown out the inspectors, removed the spent nuclear fuel from the casks and resumed reprocessing. Instead, on June 16, 1998 Pyongyang publicly offered to negotiate an end to its development as well as export of ballistic missiles. Development meant not only tests, but also production of missiles for testing. The North coupled that offer with a threat to resume tests, a threat it carried out on August 31 when it launched a three-stage rocket in an unsuccessful attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

Pyongyang's bargaining tactics led many to conclude that it was engaging in blackmail in an attempt to obtain economic aid without giving up anything in return. It was not. It was playing tit for tat, cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end enmity.

On the Road to Reconciliation

Kim Dae Jung played a pivotal part in putting Washington back on the road to reconciliation with Pyongyang. South Korea's aim had long been reunification, a synonym in Seoul for collapse of the North. From his inauguration as president in February 1998, Kim proclaimed that his "immediate objective" was "to put an end to the cold war confrontation and settle peace rather than attempting to accomplish reunification." Food aid and engagement, he believed, would reassure the North that the South did not seek its collapse and would promote an end to adversarial relations. President Kim resolutely stayed his cooperative course in the face of relentless partisan attack. He also persuaded former defense secretary William Perry of the soundness of his approach. In the course of a policy review to formulate a "sustainable long-term strategy beyond the Agreed Framework," Perry decided to go to Pyongyang in May 1999 and affirm that the United States was at last ready to negotiate in earnest and make good on its promises. Prior to Perry's trip, North Korea let the canning of spent fuel at Yongbyon be completed. It also allowed visits to the Kumchang-ni site by U.S. inspectors, who found it was not nuclear-related. The Perry policy paid off that September when Pyongyang agreed to suspend its test launching of missiles while negotiations proceeded. In return, Washington promised to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a pledge it was slow to carry out.

Meanwhile, Kim Dae Jung was making quiet contacts of his own that led to a summit meeting in June 2000. Less well known is how the Clinton administration helped make the North-South summit possible by showing its readiness to cooperate. In anticipation of high-level talks in Washington proposed by Perry, it handed the North Koreans a draft communique in January declaring an end to enmity.
At the summit in June 2000 the South and North pledged to reconcile, an irreversible step toward ending a half century of internecine conflict. By reaching accommodation, the onetime foes were moving to realign relations in all of Northeast Asia and opening the way to regional cooperation on security.

As soon as the summit was over, the Clinton administration carried out its promise to issue new trade regulations ending sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, something Pyongyang wanted before agreeing to meet. Pyongyang also wanted Washington to end sanctions under U.S. anti-terrorism laws. "We cannot visit the United States [wearing] the cap of a terrorist," the D.P.R.K. ambassador to China put it. Lacking any compelling evidence of Pyongyang's involvement in terrorist acts since 1987, the Bush administration in October 1990 had dropped terrorism from its list of preconditions for holding high-level talks with the North. By the late 1990s the main sticking point keeping North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism was that Pyongyang still harbored a handful of aging Red Army members whom Tokyo holds responsible for the 1970 hijacking of a Japanese airliner. Pyongyang has been ready to repatriate them, but Tokyo did not take up the issue in talks with the North until earlier this year. The Clinton administration considered a presidential waiver to take North Korea off the list, but to avoid allied loss of face, it instead asked the D.P.R.K. to condemn terrorism in March 2000. Talks yielded an October 6 joint statement in which the North renounced terrorism and both sides "underscored their commitment to support the international legal regime combating international terrorism and to cooperate with each other in taking effective measures to fight terrorism" -- specifically, "to exchange information regarding international terrorism."

These steps prompted Kim Jong Il to send his second in command, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington on October 9, 2000. A joint communique issued on October 12 read, "neither government would have hostile intent toward the other." In plain English, we are not enemies. This declared end to enmity opened the way to a missile deal and conventional force talks -- once a missile deal is concluded and faithfully implemented. Within two weeks, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang and became the first U.S. official to meet with Kim Jong Il. In their talks, Kim offered to end exports of all missile technology, including under existing contracts, and to freeze testing, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range of 500 kilometers. That covered the No Dong, Taepo Dong I and II, and, arguably, the SCUD-C. In return, the United States offered to arrange for two or three satellite launches a year. The North said it would accept compensation in kind, not cash, for revenue forgone by halting its missile exports. Though it did not say so, Washington was prepared to arrange for $200-300 million a year in investment and aid.

To turn the freeze into a verifiable ban, significant issues remained to be explored and resolved: "elimination" of North Korea's missiles, on-site monitoring to verify the cessation of missile production and deployment -- what negotiators called "transparency" and "confidence-building measures on missiles" -- and extending the freeze to all missiles capable of a range over 300 kilometers, the Missile Technology Control Regime standard.
The October 12 joint communique had alluded to a way to verify the accord. "The sides agreed on the desirability of greater transparency in carrying out their respective obligations under the Agreed Framework," it reads. "In this regard, they noted the value of the access which removed U.S. concerns about the underground site at Kumchang-ni." North Korea had allowed U.S. inspectors to visit the site twice and even had proposed permanent monitoring at the site in the form of a joint venture. Such transparency is needed not only at other suspect nuclear sites in the North, but also for verification of a missile ban.

Above all, the D.P.R.K. wanted President Clinton to come to Pyongyang to seal the deal, consummation of its ten-year campaign to end enmity with the United States. Why would North Korea give up nuclear arms and missiles, never mind its artillery threat to Seoul, if the United States remained its foe?

Reconciliation Derailed

With the 2000 election outcome hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot, President Clinton got cold feet. Without his commitment to come, negotiations with the North stalled. On June 18, 2002, he said as much to the Council on Foreign Relations, "We were very close to ending the North Korean missile program in the year 2000. I believe if I had been willing to go there, we would have ended it."
Instead of picking up the ball where Clinton dropped it, Bush moved the goalposts. In so doing, he picked a fight with ally South Korea. The White House broke with Kim Dae Jung in March 2001 by publicly repudiating reconciliation and privately discouraging the South from concluding a peace agreement with the North or providing it with electricity, a potential quid pro quo for Kim Jong Il's return visit.

Some administration officials are ideologically indisposed to arms control and to negotiating with North Korea. Others are understandably skeptical about Pyongyang's willingness to carry out its pledges. Still others wrongly assume that if the United States facilitates efforts by the North and South to ease hostility, U.S. troops will have to leave. The converse seems more likely: if South Koreans believe Washington is impeding reconciliation with the North, support for the U.S. military presence in Korea will erode, jeopardizing the American position in Northeast Asia. Far from insisting on withdrawal, Kim Jong Il told Kim Dae Jung at their June 2000 summit what Pyongyang has, in effect, been saying to Washington since 1992 -- that so long as the United States remains its enemy, U.S. troops are a threat and must leave Korea, but once the relationship is no longer hostile, U.S. troops are no longer a threat and could stay.
After completing its policy review, the Bush administration reneged on past promises and tried to reinterpret agreements with the North unilaterally. Above all, it never reaffirmed the October 12, 2000 U.S.-D.P.R.K. pledge of no "hostile intent." Second, as the White House announced on June 6, 2001, it sought "improved implementation" of the 1994 Agreed Framework, in effect, reinterpreting it unilaterally to require prompt nuclear inspections without offering anything in return. Third, it wanted "a less threatening conventional military posture" in the North. Given its military inferiority, Pyongyang cannot do that on its own without reciprocity by Seoul and Washington -- reciprocity more far-reaching than the symbolic confidence-building measures that Washington and Seoul are now considering. Although it did not say so, the administration also decided that, as a matter of policy, progress toward an agreement on missiles would depend on progress on other issues of concern. That assured no progress across the board.

In response to the June 6 White House statement, a D.P.R.K. Foreign Ministry spokesman on June 18 called on Washington to implement "the provisions of the D.P.R.K.-U.S. Agreed Framework and the D.P.R.K.-U.S. joint communique as agreed upon." The North followed that up on June 28 with the hint of a deal: it linked a U.S. demand for nuclear inspections with its own demand for electricity, "compensation" for the delay in constructing the first reactor promised under the Agreed Framework. At the same time, however, the North warned of tit for tat: "If no measure is taken for the compensation for the loss of electricity, the D.P.R.K. can no longer keep its nuclear activities in a state of freeze and implement the Agreed Framework."

North Korea Is No Iraq
Then came September 11. The next day a D.P.R.K. Foreign Ministry spokesman voiced regret and reiterated North Korean opposition to all forms of terrorism. On September 15 the head of a delegation from Pyongyang, arriving in Seoul for ministerial talks, also expressed regret. A senior Foreign Ministry official handed Sweden's chargé in Pyongyang a note for the United States expressing condolences, an invitation to cooperate on terrorism.
Far from cooperating on terrorism or anything else, the Bush administration sounded like it was spoiling for a fight. Instead of reaffirming the commitment to no "hostile intent," President Bush repudiated it in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he said, referring to North Korea, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." He went on: "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference could be catastrophic."

What read like the purple prose of speechwriters soon became administration policy -- and not just toward Iraq. In January and again on May 6, Under Secretary of State John Bolton accused both North Korea and Iraq of having "covert nuclear weapons programs, in violation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." On June 1, seeming to signal a shift from benign neglect to coercive containment, President Bush announced a new doctrine of waging preventive war -- without allies, without U.N. sanction, in violation of international law. "We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systematically break them," he declared. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."
The administration was depicting North Korea and Iraq as two of a kind. Yet North Korea is no Iraq. It wants to improve relations with the United States and seems ready to give up its nuclear, missile, and other weapons programs in return.

If so, reciprocal engagement will likely be more effective than coercion. Even though the Bush administration was long aware of North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile activities, it made no effort to enter into negotiations. It had long said it would meet "anytime, anywhere," but Pyongyang's willingness to resume talks, conveyed to Lim Dong Won in early April 2002, took it by surprise. On April 30 the administration offered dates for their resumption, but internal struggle over the negotiating position to take led it to seek a postponement. Again, it used the deadly West Sea naval clash to postpone talks scheduled for July 10-12 in Pyongyang. Even after Secretary of State Colin Powell's brief chat with Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun at the ASEAN Forum on July 31, Washington did not offer to set a date for talks.

Diplomatic give-and-take with the D.P.R.K. could satisfy U.S. nuclear and other security concerns without a replay of the 1994 crisis. Then, like now, the United States had three options: impose sanctions, which were rightly deemed unlikely to be effective in curbing the North's nuclear program; attack the nuclear sites at Yongbyon, which was not certain to eliminate all the nuclear material and facilities in the North but certain to raise a political storm in the South; or negotiate. By refusing to negotiate, the administration may leave itself with no other option than to live with a nuclear-arming North.

The 1994 Agreed Framework is a basis for negotiating further inspections of nuclear activity by the North. While the accord does not explicitly refer to uranium enrichment, it does say, "The D.P.R.K. will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." It thereby incorporates the obligation under that declaration "not to possess facilities for reprocessing or enrichment" without providing for verification. The visits to the suspect site at Kumchang-ni under the Agreed Framework are useful precedents for that.

Yet the administration was doing its best to undermine the 1994 accord. Republicans in Congress have long pressed to halt heavy fuel oil deliveries and reactor construction and to abandon the Agreed Framework altogether. Faced with either repudiating them or refusing to certify the D.P.R.K.'s compliance with the accord, the administration opted not to certify compliance while at the same time saying it would continue to abide by the accord's provisions. Some officials wanted to go a step further, accusing North Korea of "anticipatory breach" of the accord -- on the grounds it had not allowed inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to determine how much reprocessing of plutonium it had done before 1991. That flies in the face of the text, which reads, "When a significant portion of the LWR project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components, the D.P.R.K. will come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement with the I.A.E.A." Nothing in the negotiating record obliges the North to act sooner.

The North, for its part, has not permitted the International Atomic Energy Agency "ad hoc and routine inspections" at certain facilities at Yongbyon, like the isotope production laboratory. Such inspections are mandated under the Agreed Framework, which obliges the D.P.R.K. in general to "allow implementation of its safeguards agreement" and specifically stipulates that "ad hoc and routine inspections will resume under the D.P.R.K.'s safeguards agreement with the I.A.E.A. with respect to the facilities not subject to the freeze."

Pyongyang's Mid-Course Correction

Convinced it was getting nowhere with Washington, the North changed course in September 2001 -- four months before President Bush's "axis of evil" speech -- and resumed ministerial-level talks with the South to implement agreements reached in the June 2000 summit. In secret talks in Beijing around the same time, the North began tiptoeing toward a resumption of normalization talks with Japan as well. This marked an important shift for Pyongyang, which for the past decade had engaged seriously with Seoul and Tokyo only when it was convinced that Washington was cooperating as well. It had finally concluded that the path to reconciliation with Washington runs through Seoul and Tokyo. Pyongyang was also reducing the risk of renewed confrontation with Washington.

Some hard-liners in the Bush administration claim its tough stance brought North Korea to seek accommodation with South Korea and Japan, but they've got it backward: it led Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations with Pyongyang in order to head off a crisis.
Prime Minister Koizumi's summit meeting with Kim Jong Il was clear evidence of this. After the Bush administration spurned negotiations with North Korea, the Japanese tired of waiting for Washington. On February 18, less than three weeks after the "axis of evil" speech, Prime Minister Koizumi, with President Bush at his side, said at their post-summit press conference, "On North Korea, Japan, through cooperation and coordination with the U.S. and Korea, would like to work on normalization of relations with North Korea." North Korea did not take long to respond. It revived Red Cross talks and pledged to resume its search for the missing persons that Tokyo suspects it kidnapped two decades ago.

The contrast could not have been starker on August 30, a day after John Bolton's speech in Seoul, when Prime Minister Koizumi announced he would hold a summit meeting in Pyongyang. On the eve of the summit, in a written response to questions from Kyodo news service, Kim Jong Il said the time had come to "liquidate the past." Japan had to "apologize sincerely" and "the issue of compensation must be correctly resolved." Left unsaid was that he was about to acknowledge the fate of the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea. An end to "abnormal relations," Kim said, "will also dissipate the security concerns of the Japanese people."
The September 17 summit communique put security at the top of the agenda for D.P.R.K.-Japan dialogue. "In step with the normalization of their relations," they would discuss not only "issues relating security" between themselves, but also "underscore the importance of building a structure of cooperative relations" in Northeast Asia, a possible indication of D.P.R.K. support for Japan's formula of six-party talks, and, in a joint signal to Washington, "promote dialogue among the countries concerned [with Korea] as regards all security matters including nuclear and missile issues." The D.P.R.K. committed itself to an indefinite extension of its moratorium on missile test launches. Whether Pyongyang also indicated willingness to eliminate its No Dong and longer-range missiles is not yet known.

The communique committed them to resume talks in October and "exert all efforts to establish diplomatic ties at an early date." Economic assistance to the North will be part of those talks, "including grants in aid, low-interest long-term loans and humanitarian aid through international organizations" and "loans and credits through the International Cooperation Bank of Japan."
For Japan to act on its own was unprecedented. Since the start of the cold war, it has deferred to the United States on security matters. Knowing the D.P.R.K. wanted direct negotiations with the United States, Japan is still trying to coax Washington into engaging. Failing that, it may try to broker a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.
Hard-liners in Washington may want to impede D.P.R.K.-Japan rapprochement, but others close to the president recognized that failure to reengage could put the U.S. military presence in play in Japanese politics by alienating supporters of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and strengthening the hand of right wingers who insist "Japan can say no" to the United States and who want Tokyo to look after its own security unbound by the U.S. alliance.

These concerns at last led the administration to hold the first substantive high-level U.S.-D.P.R.K. talks since November 2000. The administration sent an emissary to Pyongyang for talks, but it was in no mood to negotiate.

Tit-for-Tat on Enrichment

Having moved to accommodate Seoul and Tokyo, Pyongyang was ready for nuclear tit-for-tat with Washington. One day after Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted him with evidence of its covert nuclear program, North Korean negotiator Kang Sok Ju acknowledged its existence. It was at once a threat to develop nuclear arms and an offer to stop. Kelly made it clear Washington did not want talks: the North had to stop, or else.

Contrary to early press coverage, the existence of the uranium enrichment program is not news. It had been disclosed by Under Secretary of State Bolton, but his disclosures drew little public attention at the time. "Program" has a range of meanings from seeking to acquire gas centrifuges and other matériel usable for enrichment to having produced quantities of highly enriched uranium. U.S. intelligence is said to have proof that the North succeeded in obtaining some gas centrifuges from Pakistan and "was trying to acquire large amounts of high-strength aluminum" to make more -- from Japan, of all places. It is said to have identified three suspect sites where enrichment experiments were conducted, but it has offered no evidence that the North has a full-scale enrichment facility close to completion or has separated a significant amount of uranium.

The stunning revelation confirmed the worst suspicions of some, that North Korea had intended to dupe the United States all along by substituting a covert nuclear program for the one it allowed to be frozen. That hypothesis does not seem plausible. After all, if North Korea had been determined to acquire nuclear arms early in the 1990s, it could have done so by shutting down its reactor at Yongbyon anytime between 1991 and 1994, removing the spent nuclear fuel, and reprocessing it to extract plutonium, then refuel the reactor to generate more plutonium. It could also have completed two more reactors then under construction. By now it could have over 100 nuclear weapons. Why give up a Barry Bonds for a player to be named? And why, when confronted by evidence that it has a covert nuclear program, acknowledge that fact in talks with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly? Two other interpretations seem more tenable. One is that, starting in 1997, the North was hedging against U.S. failure to live up to the Agreed Framework. It gave new impetus to the effort starting in 2001, but it is now prepared to trade in that hedge. Another is that it is playing tit-for-tat to induce the United States to end enmity. Either way, Pyongyang keeps signalling its desire for a deal with Washington -- and not just on nuclear and missile issues. On June 10 Secretary of State Powell set out a four-point agenda for talks: "the North must get out of the proliferation business and eliminate long-range missiles that threaten other countries." Second, "it must make a much more serious effort to provide for its suffering citizens." Third, "the North needs to move toward a less threatening conventional military posture" and "live up to its past pledges to implement basic confidence-building measures with the South." Fourth, it must come into full compliance with the I.A.E.A. safeguards that it agreed to when its signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." In reply, the D.P.R.K. accepted Powell's agenda, suggesting a new or revised agreed framework to accommodate it. It would also move to set up a military hot line in the context of constructing a rail link to the South.

On August 29 Under Secretary of State John Bolton gave a much-ballyhooed speech in Seoul, a toned down version of his original draft. The North, he said, has "an active program" of chemical weapons, has "one of the most robust bioweapons programs on earth" and "is in stark violation of the Biological Weapons Convention," is "the world's foremost peddler of ballistic missile-related equipment, components, materials, and technical expertise," and "has not begun to allow inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency to complete all of their required tasks. Many doubt that North Korea ever intends to comply fully with its NPT obligations." On August 31, 2002, a D.P.R.K. Foreign Ministry spokesman recited all of Bolton's concerns and said, "The D.P.R.K. clarified more than once that if the U.S. has a willingness to drop its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K., it will have dialogue with the U.S. to clear the U.S. of its worries over its security." It was putting biological, chemical, and conventional arms on the negotiating table -- once the nuclear and missile deals are done. On October 20 Kim Young Nam, chair of Supreme People's Assembly and titular chief of state, reiterated the August 31 formula in talks with Jeong Se-hyun, South Korea's Unification Minister, "If the United States is willing to drop its hostile policy toward us, we are prepared to deal with various security concerns through dialogue."

In the talks with Kelly, Kang Sok Ju put the North's covert nuclear program on the negotiating table. By Kelly's own account, Kang laid out the terms of trade only in general terms. He asked for assurances the United States would not attack the North, would sign a peace agreement or declared end to enmity, and would respect its sovereignty. A D.P.R.K. Foreign Ministry spokesman put the terms somewhat differently on October 25. "The D.P.R.K. ... clarified that it was ready to seek a negotiated settlement of this issue on the following three conditions: firstly, if the United States recognizes the D.P.R.K.'s sovereignty; secondly, if it assures the D.P.R.K. of nonaggression; and thirdly, if the United States does not hinder the economic development of the D.P.R.K." He spoke of "a nonaggression treaty" between the two.

Already alerted to the enrichment program, Seoul and Tokyo had moved to engage Pyongyang in diplomatic give-and-take. They have not been driven off course. After Kelly briefed them on his talks, Seoul went ahead with ministerial talks and Tokyo moved up the date for resumption of normalization talks with the North. "I have decided to resume negotiations," Prime Minister Koizumi said on October 18, "because I judged that taking the first major step of moving from an adversarial relationship to a cooperative one would be in the best interests of Japan." During his summit meeting in Pyongyang, he added, "I discerned their intention to seek a comprehensive promotion of talks on a number of issues, such as nuclear weapons development and other national security issues." A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official explained Japan's decision to Asahi Shimbun this way: "We cannot afford to have North Korea leave the negotiating table. If the United States takes a more hard-line stance, we have to mollify North Korea. The negotiations have definitely become much harder." In its ongoing talks with South Korea and its responses to the Powell agenda, the Bolton list of concerns, and the Kelly accusation, North Korea has now said it is prepared to negotiate with the United States on all five U.S. security interests set out at the top of this paper. For those like the New York Times that had missed the point, the D.P.R.K. ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol spelled it out. "Everything will be negotiable," he said, including inspections of the enrichment program and shutting it down. "Our government will resolve all U.S. security concerns through the talks if your government has a will to end its hostile policy." In a test of wills, North Korea does not lack leverage: it has yet to renounce the Agreed Framework, throw out the I.A.E.A. inspectors, reopen the plutonium-filled casks, or restart its Yongbyon reactor. Instead of trying to compel rightly reluctant allies to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang, President Bush needs to reframe the issue, Is the world's only superpower tough enough to sit down and negotiate in earnest with North Korea?

U.S. hardliners may want to use Pyongyang's "confession" to punish the North, but the crime-and-punishment approach has never worked before and there is no reason to believe that it will work now. Sooner or later, every administration since Ronald Reagan's has given reciprocal engagement a try. Let's hope this one doesn't have to undermine its alliances or go back to the brink of war before doing so.