Commentary

Keeping Our Eye on the Ball Regarding North Korea

North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons is one of the most serious security challenges the United States faces. The most recent six-party talks (China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, United States) made, at best, incremental progress toward a solution to the crisis. Throughout the negotiations, the U.S. goal has remained the same: a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to North Korea’s nuclear program.

That is as it should be. A settlement without those characteristics would scarcely be worth the paper on which it was written. Indeed, anything less than a rigorous, verifiable agreement will simply give Pyongyang another opportunity to cheat-just as it has violated its commitments under the 1994 Agreed Framework that supposedly froze North Korea’s program.

Ending Pyongyang’s emerging nuclear-weapons capability is an important U.S. interest. A nuclear-armed North Korea would destabilize the security environment in East Asia, a region of strategic and economic value to the United States. Even worse, a cash-strapped North Korean regime with nukes lying around might be tempted to sell a weapon to Al-Qaeda or some other terrorist organization that would use it against an American target.

That is why it is so critical for American policymakers to keep their priorities straight. Washington’s policy should focus like a laser on achieving a settlement that would excise North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability. Improving the abysmal human rights situation in North Korea, or achieving regime change in that long-suffering country, may be desirable in the abstract, but U.S. leaders cannot let those goals interfere with the more crucial objective of nuclear disarmament.

In that context, the recent statements of James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian Affairs to Congress are disturbing. It has been clear from the beginning that Pyongyang will not relinquish its nukes unless the United States agrees to normalize political and economic relations with North Korea. Yet Kelly stressed that to get such improved relations, North Korea would have to do far more than dismantle its nuclear program. In particular, he emphasized that Pyongyang would have to substantially improve its human rights record.

Kelly is not the only one to make progress on that issue a prerequisite for normal relations. Legislation has been introduced in Congress prohibiting the establishment of such relations until North Korea meets specific milestones on human rights.

Unfortunately, such demands may torpedo a deal on the nuclear issue. It is possible (although by no means certain) that Kim Jong-il’s regime may agree to relinquish its nuclear ambitions if the prospective benefits are sufficient. There is almost no chance that it will agree to abandon the repressive policies that enable it to retain political power. By making the human rights issue a requirement for normalizing relations, the United States is essentially demanding that the North Korean regime commit suicide.

The United States often has had to conclude limited agreements with odious governments to advance important American interests. Washington signed the 1963 Atmospheric Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union and two decades later negotiated an agreement that pulled both countries’ intermediate nuclear missiles out of Europe. We did not insist that the Soviet Union end its human rights abuses or become an enlightened democracy as a condition for signing those documents. American interests and the cause of peace were advanced because U.S. officials were willing to accept narrow agreements instead of holding out for the wholesale transformation of the Soviet system.

We face a similar situation today with respect to North Korea. If it is possible to conclude an agreement for the complete, verifiable and irreversible end to that country’s nuclear threat, we would be foolish indeed to spurn that opportunity. Every American hopes that someday the brutal North Korean regime will end up on the ash heap of history, as it deserves. But America cannot sacrifice its own security interests in an attempt to achieve that goal. To do so would be a dangerously shortsighted policy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs. He is the coauthor of Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (forthcoming, Palgrave/Macmillan.)