An independent panel of scholars and former diplomats is recommending the United States engage in direct negotiations with North Korea to try to end that country's nuclear weapons program. The Council on Foreign Relations task force on Korea warns in a report issued Monday that, without urgent action, the world could face a fully nuclear-armed North Korea.
The current U.S. policy is not to negotiate any deals with North Korea until that country dismantles its nuclear program in a verifiable way. But the Council on Foreign Relations Korea task force says the United States should enter negotiations with Pyongyang to prevent the situation from deteriorating.
Eric Heginbotham, of the Council on Foreign Relations' Asia Studies department, says it is critical to get negotiations underway soon to test North Korea's intentions.
The United States believes North Korea may already have one or two nuclear weapons and enough spent nuclear fuel to make five or six more by the end of the year. The North says it has begun reprocessing spent fuel to make weapons grade plutonium, but U.S. officials say that has not been confirmed.
Mr. Heginbotham says the task force is proposing an interim agreement that would put North Korea's true intentions to the test. "In addition to testing the North, if successful, an interim agreement would stop the situation from hemorrhaging further in the short term, by getting North Korea to freeze its nuclear reactors, its reprocessing facilities and to turn over its spent nuclear fuel."
The report says North Korea should be required to rejoin the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and allow international inspectors to verify its nuclear program freeze. Pyongyang expelled U.N. weapons inspectors and announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty late last year, as it took steps to revive its nuclear program.
Last month, China hosted talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, but they made no headway in resolving the issue.
Former U.S. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, co-chairman of the task force, says, in exchange for North Korea recommitting to its international obligations, the interim agreement would have to give something to Pyongyang.
"The United States would be prepared to give it security assurances, and would not take any measures to prevent other countries from providing assistance to North Korea," he said. "So, there is something of an arrangement here, which North Korea would get something that it has a deep interest in, and we would get a major advance in trying to prevent their plutonium programs."
Ambassador Abramowitz says such an agreement would be tougher than the 1994 agreement that froze North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for promises of aid from the United States, South Korea and Japan. That agreement dissolved after the United States presented evidence last year that North Korea was continuing a secret nuclear program.
The task force's other chairman, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney, says skepticism about North Korea is appropriate. But he says the task force is proposing verification up front, not at the end, as in the 1994 agreement.
In addition, Ambassador Laney says, the group is calling for a high-level U.S. policy coordinator working on the Korea issue full time, who can bring together a strong coalition of regional countries, including South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. He says the coalition must agree to pursue peaceful negotiations, but also agree to jointly implement strong sanctions, if talks fail.
"We're talking about countries that have a huge stake in the Korean peninsula and in the security and stability of Northeast Asia," he said. "So this is one place where our allies don't constrain us, but strengthen us."
If North Korea does not agree to negotiate an end to its nuclear program, the task force says, the United States and its coalition partners should be prepared to implement what it calls contingency measures. These include a suspension of aid and trade with North Korea by China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, and a possible naval and land blockade of the North.
Eric Heginbotham says a blockade would be highly provocative. In addition, he says, its effectiveness in preventing Pyongyang from exporting nuclear materials would be in doubt, because, for example, plutonium is small and not easily detected, and it is easily transported.