Tuesday, September 14, 2004


"The North Korea Nuclear Issue: The Road Ahead” by Robert J. Einhorn crossed my in-box via NAPSNET. The specific link to the piece is here but it did not work when I tried it (perhaps it will be fixed later?). This is basically a summary of the CW here in DC think-tank wonk-land. Highlights:
From the time it took office, the Bush administration has been deeply divided on North Korea. One camp has assumed that North Korea would never voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, believed that the North Koreans would cheat on any new agreement, and feared that such an agreement would prop up a tyrannical regime. This group has supported regime change as the most reliable way of disarming North Korea. The other camp, skeptical about Pyongyang’s willingness to give up nuclear arms but dubious about prospects for regime change in the near term, has favored exploring a negotiated solution. For much of the past three years, differences between the two camps have blocked a coherent approach toward North Korea’s nuclear program.

However, after Colonel Gaddafi agreed in December 2003 to give up his nuclear program, a compromise (actually, more of a truce) was reached on the basis of what the administration started calling the “Libya model” – according to which an autocratic regime, looking to end its international isolation, makes a strategic decision to give up its nuclear program quickly, completely, and transparently without the U.S. having to make concessions up front. Consistent with that model, if Kim Jong-il were prepared to follow Gaddafi’s example and disarm on U.S. terms, the Bush administration would be willing to support the DPRK’s integration into the world community, provide it assistance, and not seek to topple its regime.

The Libya model was the basis for the U.S. proposal tabled in late June 2004 at the third round of the six-party talks.
There is little likelihood North Korea will accept the current U.S. proposal. It sees itself in a strong bargaining position. With American forces tied down in Iraq and stretched thin worldwide (and some U.S. troops even shifting from South Korea to Iraq), Pyongyang must calculate that a military threat from the U.S. is remote. Indeed, even before Iraq, the DPRK’s ability to devastate Seoul with its massive, forward-deployed conventional artillery and rocket forces was a strong inhibitor of U.S. military action. Economic factors do not compel DPRK flexibility either. Kim Jong-il appears to be serious about pursuing market reforms and probably realizes that such reforms cannot get very far if his country remains economically isolated because of the nuclear issue. But given the choice between maintaining his “powerful deterrent” and promoting the success of the reform effort, it is clear that he will give priority to security.
The idea that Pyongyang can be squeezed until it capitulates or collapses is wishful thinking. The regime has been surprisingly resilient, defying repeated predictions of its imminent demise. Moreover, neither China nor South Korea wants a sudden, destabilizing collapse in the North. Especially in the absence of a U.S. negotiating position that Beijing and Seoul consider reasonable – and since the June round, they have already begun calling for more U.S. flexibility – both can be expected to resist U.S. appeals for squeezing the North and to continue providing the assistance needed to keep it afloat.
A preferable approach, one likely to be supported by some in a second Bush administration or by a Kerry administration, would be to explore whether a sound agreement is possible. It would adopt elements of the Bush proposal (e.g., clear commitment to complete elimination and full disclosure of all programs from the outset), but it would provide for a phased elimination in a longer timeframe. At the same time, the U.S. would join the others in offering incentives in each of the phases, including from the beginning.

To be sure, this approach has downsides, including the risk that the North Koreans sooner or later would try to cheat or pull out of the process before dismantlement is complete. These risks can be minimized but not avoided, reflecting the reality that has faced the last three U.S. Presidents: there are no good options in dealing with North Korea. An imperfect agreement is the least bad option.

As I noted previously, this line of thinking is the virtually unchallenged conventional wisdom here in DC (in the past the line "test the intentions of North Korea" has bene invoked ad nauseum). Only occasionally will a hard-core neo-con or paleo-con try to argue that North Korea is irredeemable and that any attempt to engage the regime is tantamount to bad precedent-setting "appeasement." I guess that at the end of the day, I side with the CW on this one. The U.S. is presently in no condition to bring military force to bear to deal with North Korean proliferation. So what's wrong with making a reasonable offer in the presence of all six-parties who will be more likely to support more drastic measures if the DPRK balks?

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