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Analysts Ask What Will It Take to Guarantee North Korean Security?

Multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs resume next week in Beijing after a 13-month hiatus. There is widespread agreement that economic incentives alone will not persuade the North to give up its nuclear capabilities. Pyongyang has long demanded a security guarantee from the United States in addition to compensation. VOA's Kurt Achin takes a closer look at North Korea's security concerns - and whether next week's negotiations are likely to ease them enough to produce a deal.

U.S. historian Kathryn Weathersby says North Korea's obsession with security can be traced back to a period of about 24 hours in 1950.

She says a few months after the North's invasion of South Korea in 1950, Pyongyang's ally, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, was ready to let North Korea be defeated. "Stalin sent an order to [then North Korean leader] Kim Il Sung to evacuate the country. Withdraw all of his forces out of North Korean territory. Give up North Korea. Let the Americans take it," he said.

Ms. Weathersby, who studies Soviet archival documents at Washington D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson Center, says that order was soon canceled, because China had entered the Korean War. However, she says the sense of fear and betrayal from the incident has influenced North Korean policy up to the present day.

Now, in July 2005, North Korea says it fears what it calls hostility by the United States - and insists it needs an arsenal of nuclear weapons to counter it. Senior U.S. officials say Washington has no intention of attacking North Korea.

But major questions exist about how any security guarantee for North Korea should be defined. Is it to be a simple pledge not to invade? Or is it to be a guarantee of security for the regime of Kim Jong Il - which could be interpreted far more broadly?

International security analyst Chun Chae-sung, of Seoul National University, says the distinction is crucial. "If the United States says your system is secure as a nation or a state, but you have to change your leadership style or even the Kim Jong Il regime itself, then Kim Jong Il will not accept that," he said..

Experts say one problem with guaranteeing the security of North Korea is that Pyongyang can list many perceived threats, including U.S. conventional forces in South Korea - which have been in place since North Korea invaded 55 years ago.

Another perceived threat to the Kim regime is U.S. opposition to North Korea's abuse of human rights, believed to be among the worst in the world.

In his second inaugural speech, President Bush set a goal of spreading freedom and ending tyranny around the world, and he has since referred to Kim Jong Il as a "tyrant."

Last month, the president invited North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan for a personal meeting at the White House, after reading Mr. Kang's book about ten years spent in a North Korean labor camp.

U.S. Senators attending a Washington conference on North Korean human rights called on the president to put human rights abuses "front and center" at next week's nuclear talks in Beijing. The conference was funded under the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed last year, which calls for $20 million in additional U.S. funds to help North Korean defectors who leave their country.

Professor Chun says Pyongyang may point to such human rights activism as undermining any U.S. guarantee of security. "Human rights is directly related to the legitimacy of the regime itself. It is not about the nuclear problem," he said.

An advisor to South Korea's president said earlier this year that the opportunity before President Bush is similar to the one President Nixon seized when he established diplomatic relations with Communist China - the chance to engage a leader with whom he has serious differences in the hope of achieving a greater good.

It remains to be seen in next week's talks, however, how far Washington is willing to go to make Pyongyang feel secure.