Commentary

Forcing North Korea’s Hand

North Korea’s February announcement that it possesses nuclear weapons sent psychological shock waves throughout East Asia.

The United States and other nations in the region are now redoubling their efforts to get Pyongyang to reconsider its refusal to participate in another round of the six-party talks (involving China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, as well as North Korea and the United States) aimed at getting the North to end its nuclear program.

An entirely new strategy is needed. Even if North Korea agrees (largely because of Chinese pressure) to rejoin the talks, that would be a meager accomplishment. The multilateral negotiations that began in the spring of 2004 have achieved almost nothing.

Indeed, the participants seem to regard it as a major breakthrough when the parties agree simply to talk some more. Those negotiations are reminiscent of the infamous Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction Talks in Vienna between the Soviet Union and the NATO countries during the 1970s and 1980s, which dragged on year after year with no discernable progress.

The brutal reality is that despite the six-party talks, North Korea is no closer today to renouncing its quest for nuclear weapons than it was when the negotiations began. Unless something dramatic changes, the country will soon possess a sizable nuclear arsenal even as the diplomats continue to chatter.

Kim Jong-il’s regime says that it is willing to give up its nuclear program if the United States ends its “hostile attitude” and offers a variety of political and economic concessions. There is ample reason to doubt Pyongyang’s sincerity. Indeed, there is a very real possibility that North Korea has decided to crash the exclusive global nuclear-weapons club no matter what concessions the United States or the other members of the six-party talks might offer.

But we will never know for certain until we test Pyongyang’s intentions. The only way to do that is to bypass to excruciating pace of the six-party talks and to “cut to the chase.” Washington should offer North Korea a “grand bargain” to end the impasse.

Pyongyang has said that it wants a binding non-aggression pact from the United States as well as normalized diplomatic and economic relations. The Bush administration should offer all three concessions. In exchange, however, the United States should continue to insist on a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to North Korea’s nuclear program.

That is the proper goal, but the devil is in the details. Achieving such a result would require on-demand international inspections of any suspect site in North Korea (not just those that Pyongyang has admitted to being part of its nuclear program). It would also require the dismantling of all existing nuclear weapons and their removal from North Korean territory. The same standard would be needed with regard to all plutonium and highly enriched uranium stocks so that the North could not reactivate its program at a later date.

Such a bold proposal would call North Korea’s bluff. If Pyongyang is sincere about giving up its nuclear-weapons ambitions for a normal relationship with the United States, it would have no choice but to accept the grand bargain.

Conversely, if Kim Jong-il turned down the deal, we would then know that North Korea is unalterably determined to become a nuclear power. If that is the case, the United States and the nations of northeast Asia would face a difficult choice about how to respond. They could decide to resort to economic sanctions or military force to compel the North to relinquish its nukes — with all the dangers such a confrontational course would entail. Or they could decide to accept a nuclear North Korea and rely on deterrence to dissuade Pyongyang from doing anything rash with its new arsenal — as uncomfortable as that course might be.

Either way, we would know where we stand. That is preferable to continuing the seemingly endless charade of the six-party talks, a process that has produced only frustration and uncertainty.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of six books and the editor of 10 books on international affairs. His latest book, co-authored with Doug Bandow, is The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgave/Macmillan, 2004).