|Policy Area: Multilateral Talks|
North Korea: A Phased Negotiation Strategy
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Time is slipping away for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and pulled out of the 1994 Agreed Framework, a plan to provide it with energy in exchange for abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions. It has restarted its plutonium generating nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and now claims to have such weapons. Even if this claim is not true and is being made to push the United States into negotiations, the situation is extremely dangerous. North Korea has the materials and the capability to develop nuclear weapons – more than 200 of them by 2010. A nuclear-armed North Korea could threaten its neighbours and could export weapons, nuclear material or technology to other countries or terrorist groups. Even if it refrained from actively proliferating weapons, its possession of them could spark a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.
Pyongyang says it needs a nuclear deterrent because it feels threatened by the United States. North Korean officials also say they will negotiate them away in exchange for security guarantees and economic aid. The administration of President George W. Bush has said it will not bow to nuclear blackmail or reward bad behaviour. A round of talks among the U.S., North Korea and China in Beijing in April 2003 was mostly a statement of their positions with no real negotiations. Another round is being discussed, but progress is painfully slow.
Those dealing with North Korea face some key uncertainties. It is unclear how much fissile material the country has and how many weapons it may have constructed. U.S. intelligence believed it may have had two by the early 1990s; North Korea now says it has material to make six and intends to move quickly to do so. It is unclear whether such weapons are or would be small enough to be delivered on missiles or planes. It is uncertain how much more fissile material it could obtain from Yongbyon, or some other possible reprocessing plant, or how much it has or can obtain from enriching uranium. And nobody knows whether North Korea is truly willing to negotiate away its weapons or has decided that it must have a nuclear deterrent to ensure its survival.
These uncertainties make it extremely difficult for the United States – and the key regional countries with which it needs to act in concert – to come up with a policy response to North Korea’s program. The full range of available options is discussed in this paper: some are more realistic than others but all have major disadvantages:
The U.S. wants the “complete, irreversible and verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.” It also wants to achieve the elimination or verifiable control of other destructive weapons, including biological and chemical weapons and missile systems. North Korea wants a pledge that the U.S. will not overthrow the Kim Jong-il regime, a pledge that it will not be attacked, and economic assistance. The respective demands may appear straightforward, but the obstacles to reaching agreement are formidable.
Verifying any agreement will be a major challenge as North Korea may have as many as 15,000 underground sites. North Korea’s history of deception and secrecy rules out trust or the benefit of any doubt. As a result any inspection regime will have to be extremely intrusive, something that has been resisted in the past. Reassuring the North that it will not face regime change at the hands of the U.S. military has been made more difficult by the Iraq war and the inclusion of North Korea in the “Axis of Evil”: the U.S. may have to acknowledge that Kim Jong-il’s survival in power is part of the price to be paid to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Negotiations will also be complicated by the fact that South Korea, Japan, China and Russia all want their views heard. The U.S. has been insisting on multilateral talks, but North Korea feels outnumbered and wants an agreement directly with the United States. That said, both sides have been modifying their earlier positions: trilateral talks have already been held in Beijing, and a wider multilateral framework can in practice accommodate bilateral talks within it. Process is less of a problem than substance.
All parties agree that it is unacceptable for North Korea to become a nuclear power. All say they want to see a negotiated settlement. But they diverge in how this is to be achieved:
The way forward is for the U.S. to embrace – and to persuade China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to support, or at least acquiesce in – a four-phased approach that would start with the U.S. giving North Korea a conditional security assurance in return for a verifiable halt in its nuclear program; move from there to time-limited substantive negotiations; then escalate to sanctions, and ultimately to the use of military force, if and only if these latter steps became necessary. To be successful, any diplomatic approach will have to be married with a credible threat of force - but only if all diplomatic means are exhausted is there any chance of countries in the region supporting a more forceful approach. What is clear is that time is of the essence: North Korea is not likely to collapse any time soon, and a patient policy of containment without more would only allow it time to develop more weapons.
Any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be a catastrophe, especially for the many civilians in both Koreas. Balanced against this is the prospect of Pyongyang proliferating and supplying other countries and terrorist groups with fissile material and nuclear bombs. Should that happen, then no city in the world would be safe. Effective diplomacy, vigorously pursued and delayed no longer, is the only way of peacefully resolving the contemporary world’s most serious security dilemma.
To the United States:
To South Korea: