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Burned Once Before, U.S. Unwilling to Engage in Direct Talks with North Korea - 2003-06-11

Over the past year, as the Bush administration was preoccupied with Iraq, North Korea has played a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Each month seems to bring a new revelation: a secret uranium enrichment program, withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Pyongyang’s admission that it has nuclear weapons.

In a region of the world rife with historical animosities, North Korea’s pronouncements have put some analysts on edge. “What we have in North Korea is a potential time bomb in terms of a very destabilizing situation where the problem is not the intention to go to war but the possibility of mistake going to war,” says Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. “And the consequences would be utterly catastrophic. We need to focus on dealing with the North. That requires negotiation, both bilateral and multilateral to the extent that we can get it.”

But thus far, the Bush administration has held North Korea at arm’s length, refusing to negotiate directly with the isolated, totalitarian state. The onus is on North Korea, the Bush administration insists, to show it is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons program. Washington prefers a multilateral approach. It wants to involve Pyongyang’s neighbors -- South Korea, China and Japan -- which would all be affected by a nuclear-armed North Korea.

But North Korea has long insisted on direct talks with the United States. Leon Sigal, the author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, says the United States should go along with that. If it doesn’t, Pyongyang might soon be ready to send nuclear material abroad to rogue states or terrorist organizations, as it hinted it could do at discussions with the United States and China in April.

“The answer is you go in and talk to them now,” says Mr. Sigal. “Why wait to tolerate it? If you care about American security, and there is even a remote possibility of stopping that program in its tracks, you ought to see if you can do that.”

In early June, as part of redeployment of U.S. forces around the globe, the United States announced it would withdraw American troops from the demilitarized zone in Korea. Some analysts worry that in the complicated chess game played between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea could see the move as preparation for an attack.

North Korea contends that it is threatened by U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan and needs a stronger military as a deterrent. It demands that the United States sign a non-aggression pact. In mid-June in its most direct admission to date, Pyongyang announced it was developing nuclear weapons to save money on defense.

Dealing with North Korea is complicated because so little is known about the closed-off country. Information about its military program, including its reputed nuclear arsenal, comes mostly from its own pronouncements. This dearth of information should make policy-makers cautious, says David Kay, a former UN chief nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq.

“It’s the very nature of the problem with North Korea: It’s uncertainty writ in capital letters,” says Mr. Kay. “You are up against large uncertainties about what exactly is their nuclear programs. We still reach to the same descriptors that were used in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s about the size of their military force. None of us should be confident that we really know very much about the stability, solidarity, its objectives and the way it is actually thinking.”

In the absence of information, opponents of the Bush administration’s approach contend that, as the lone superpower in the world, the United States should take the first step. It could offer a resumption of a 1994 agreement, which provided North Korea energy assistance in return for dismantling its nuclear weapons production facilities. Or the United States could pay North Korea for dismantling its nuclear weapons program just as three former Soviet republics were paid to give up their nuclear arsenals in the 1990s.

But supporters of a harder line say Pyongyang’s dismal record of fulfilling international obligations makes such deals futile. They point out that North Korea broke the 1994 agreement by secretly developing a uranium enrichment program. Making concessions to North Korea before it has given up anything puts America on a slippery slope of more concessions.

Victor Cha is a political scientist at Georgetown University and author of a forthcoming book Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies. He says the Bush administration’s multilateral approach has the best chance of persuading North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to give up his nuclear weapons program.

“Bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea are not going to be effective,” he says, “and put the United States in a very disadvantageous position in which countries in the region are going to be able to delink from the proliferation problem and basically say to the U.S., ‘You go deal with this problem and, by the way, you can’t use sanctions or the threat of force’.”

“That’s not a very good position to be in,” he says. “The only way you are going to have any chance of being successful in terms of trying to convince the North is if it’s done with all other parties involved.”

Professor Cha advocates a policy of “coercive diplomacy” toward North Korea. At the same time it pursues multi-party talks, the United States should lead South Korea, Japan, China and perhaps Russia in applying economic pressure on the North Korean regime. To start with, that would mean cutting off the flow of cash to North Korea and stopping its illegal shipments of drugs around the world. If North Korea continues to be intransigent, stiffer sanctions would follow. Such pressure, Victor Cha believes, would not provoke Pyongyang.

“Pressure or even sanctions is not tantamount to war,” says Professor Cha. “North Koreans always say that pressure or sanctions of any form is a green light to war. And that is North Korean negotiating behavior. They want you to believe that if you move in the direction of pressure or sanctions, that is the equivalent of war. As a political scientist, I have always known sanctions or pressure to still be diplomacy; it’s coercive diplomacy. North Koreans lay the line out further so that you are deterred from considering anything else.”

Opponents of sanctions warn that such operations run the risk of going too far. According to retired Army colonel William Taylor, wars start “by accident or miscalculation at times of high tension, and that’s where we are, but we do not want war with North Korea. We would not be fighting Iraq. The North Koreans are well trained, well indoctrinated, well armed, and they will fight. We have no effective missile defense of South Korea or Japan.”

“The administration,” he continues, “has to be persuaded by other regional actors and maybe by others in our own country that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having one-on-one direct negotiations with Pyongyang.”

Most observers say the Bush administration is calculating that a gradual policy of pressure on North Korea combined with multi-party discussions can convince Kim Jong-Il to give up his nuclear ambitions. So far, the North Korean dictator has not been deterred. A U.S. Congressional delegation that traveled to North Korea in early June said its officials boasted that they had almost finished reprocessing enough plutonium for four or five nuclear weapons.