Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida grew up in a small town. Two months ago, he found himself far from his humble roots. As a member of a US Congressional delegation, Mr. Miller went to North Korea to discuss its nuclear weapons program. What he saw in the capital of Pyongyang astounded him. "Everybody walking around. A mindless train of people doing busy work in a classless society. It was colorless, clean, beautiful landscaping. No power, empty hotels, empty streets. Very neatly dressed women directing traffic for about the two cars that came by every ten minutes. It was a very surreal experience.”
North Korea is a poor country dependent on outside aid to feed its people. Yet it funds one of the largest militaries in the world and has broken treaty obligations that ban it from building nuclear weapons. US intelligence says North Korea has already produced one or two nuclear weapons. Its demand to negotiate only with the United States has put Northeast Asia on edge.
Leonard Spector, Deputy Director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, says "it's extremely dangerous because you have a country, which is turning its back on all the international restraints and rather deliberately moving ahead to a larger nuclear arsenal. It's doing it in a region which is always very tense because of the historical conflict between North and South Korea.”
Why is an impoverished country developing nuclear weapons? Some analysts say North Korea is scared of the Bush administration's strategy of preemption based on overthrowing regimes said to pose imminent threats.
Donald Gregg is a former US ambassador to South Korea and currently president of the Korea Society, which promotes ties between South Korea and the United States. "The North Koreans feel very much threatened by our military prowess in a conventional sense as we have demonstrated it first in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq. They are very sensitive to Pentagon issuances which have North Korea as eligible for a preemptive strike, and they said to me when I left last November, we want a non-aggression treaty of some sort with you, and if you will move toward that, we will answer all your nuclear concerns.”
Mr. Gregg is one of only a few Americans to have spent significant time with North Korean officials. But when he returned from his trip last fall, the Bush administration turned a deaf ear. “We got into the White House with that message and were told the answer is: no, that there would be no reward for bad behavior. The North Koreans have to give up all their nuclear related programs before we will talk to them about these other issues."
The Bush administration also says negotiations with North Korea must include US allies South Korea and Japan. And it is preparing a program with other countries to search North Korean ships and planes to prevent nuclear exports and to hamper North Korea's drug smuggling operations. With news this week that Pyongyang may be ready to meet with Washington, some analysts say the Bush administration's policy is working.
Chuck Downs is a former Defense Department official in the first Bush administration and author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy. He says “the Bush administration has very firmly refused to give in to North Korean negotiating ploys and has not yielded on any of the points that North Korea most wants in spite of the fact that North Korea has followed its usual strategy of ever increasing threats against the United States and its allies. So a situation that many people around town in Washington are describing as a dangerous standoff is actually a very positive development.”
Mr. Downs advocates more pressure to cause the collapse of North Korea's communist government. Some members of the Bush administration also hold that view. They believe that the more North Korea is isolated from the world, the less chance its government will have of surviving, and the sooner it will need to change its ways. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently: the message to a starving Korea is -- you can't eat plutonium.
But that hard-edged approach has other analysts worried. They contend that negotiation delays mean North Korea will just proceed ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Former ambassador Gregg says North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has seen that countries with nuclear weapons don't get pushed around. “Their long term relationship with Pakistan has caused them to hear from the Pakistani leadership how much the development of a nuclear balancing force meant to them, given the threat they felt from India. I think they feel as much threatened by us as Pakistan felt by India. So that is the direction they have gone.”
In an editorial in The Washington Post in late July, former US Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote that America's reluctance to engage North Korea has the two countries "drifting" toward war. He warned that within six months, Mr. Kim's regime will have enough plutonium to carry out a nuclear test, store several bombs and carry through on threats to export nuclear material, possibly to terrorists or unfriendly nations.
So how can the United States help untie the North Korean nuclear knot? Proponents of a hard-line policy, such as Mr. Downs, say hold firm even if it means risking war. “North Korea will threaten adamantly that everything we are doing will bring them to war. North Korea through fifty years of dealing with the outside world has often brought us to a situation where it looks like they are willing to pursue a desperation attack, but they always back down.”
But critics say the United States should negotiate now. Ambassador Gregg says “Kim Jong-Il and the coterie around him are the best of a bad lot, and we ought to test more fully than we have their willingness to really move in new directions.”
The United States appears to be getting a helping hand from China. Alarmed that a nuclear-armed North Korea could set off a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia, China is said to be pressuring the North to sit down with the Americans, perhaps in August.
Mr. Spector of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies says “the United States has insisted on multilateral talks. The North Koreans have insisted on only one-on-one talks. And the Chinese have found a compromise, which is China serving as moderator in three-way talks where China is really stepping back but creating an environment that we can call multilateral, and the North Koreans can call it bilateral.”
Mr. Spector doesn't think negotiations will get North Korea to give up its nuclear program. “I am rather pessimistic about this, and I think the precedent may be set that a country can, indeed, thumb its nose and push forward with a nuclear weapons program and get away with it in the end.”
Mohamed El-Baradei, Chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear supervisory agency, has described North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons as "the most immediate and most serious threat."
It remains to be seen if China's intermediary role will succeed in getting North Korea and the United States to start talking. If talks don't start, North Korea appears to be on track to make history as the first country to disregard prohibitions on building nuclear weapons and get away with it.