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Breaking the Impasse

Although relations between the United States and North Korea have almost invariably been tense, they have, by now, degenerated greatly enough that neither invests much effort in concealing its hostility towards the other. The Bush administration has famously branded North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” and an “outpost of tyranny”; North Korea has replied by condemning American leaders as “aggressors” and “imperialists.” Such ping-pong exchanges are reflective of increasingly imprudent policies on the part of both countries’ governments, policies which unnecessarily compound the difficulty of renewing good faith negotiations.

President Bush recently authorized an executive order that would seize the American assets — totaling approximately $32 million — of two North Korean corporations and one North Korean bank. North Korea, for its part, has restarted construction on two nuclear reactors whose production had been suspended in accordance with the 1994 Agreed Framework. Is there a way for these two countries to extricate themselves from this cycle of escalating tension? If such a route does exist, there are two critical assumptions that should help policy makers to navigate its bumps and meanders.

The first is that North Korea’s central imperative is the survival of its regime. There is a wide consensus that North Korea is a “failed state on the verge of collapse.” The Central Intelligence Agency reports the existence of “desperate economic conditions” in the Stalinist country, and argues that without immense, sustained inflows of international humanitarian aid, North Korea’s people would almost certainly suffer “mass starvation.” The prospect of famine is only one of several sources of potential instability. The Fund for Peace — a nongovernmental organization — and Foreign Policy just completed a rigorous and methodical ranking of the countries in the world that are most susceptible to “violent internal conflict.” Of the 60 that made the list, North Korea ranked 13.

Given that its internal situation is so dire, it is not surprising that North Korea’s primary objective is to continue to exist as a viable nation-state. The executive summary of the 2001 Northeast Asia Peace and Progress Conference clearly affirms this notion, as does a National Intelligence Council (NIC) report that was issued in February of that same year. The BBC commented that “Pyongyang’s diplomatic bluster is inextricably linked to its need to keep what remains of its economy propped up by donations … The endgame is simple — regime survival. It is a long-term strategy using diplomatic belligerence and military threat to secure enough aid to maintain power and isolation.”

Postures that are militant or seek to hasten the demise of the North Korean regime are more likely to induce it to deploy its stockpile of nuclear weapons against the United States, in a moment of desperate blunder, than to convince it to interdict its current efforts to construct such weapons. Unfortunately, however, the Bush administration has adopted precisely such postures. One need only review documents such as the December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, the September 2002 National Security Strategy, or “Plan 5030” to see evidence of this contention. Pyongyang, fearful that the United States increasingly represents a credible threat to its national security and vital interests, has responded to the issuance of these (and other) documents by openly declaring itself a nuclear power and announcing its intention to develop a “self-defensive” nuclear deterrent.

The North Korean response, while lamentable, follows directly from the second of the aforementioned assumptions: namely, that North Korea’s one and only request throughout its negotiations with the United States has been that the United States provides its regime with formal security assurances. It should be noted that North Korea first began expressing serious interest in developing nuclear weapons in the 1950s, in response to threats from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to deploy nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Although, of course, none of these threats ever manifested, North Korea was justified in its belief that they could have. Close to four decades later, without the Soviet Union as its bulwark, North Korea became more convinced of its vulnerability to foreign penetration. Thus, its feelings of insecurity are not cleverly contrived, but rather, historically grounded. Indeed, its desire to acquire security principally motivated its decision to accede to the 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby “The U.S. will provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S.”

Many public officials and mainstream intellectuals contend that, by continuing to develop nuclear weapons after 1994, North Korea reneged on its side of the bargain. While this statement is true, to state it in isolation is disingenuous, for the United States certainly did not abide by its principal commitments. It failed to provide the financial assistance that it had promised, did not help to fund the light-water reactors which were guaranteed North Korea, and failed to lift or even ameliorate trade sanctions against the already impoverished country. Given these fundamental breaches, those individuals who criticize the policy of engagement should consider that the United States’ efforts at normalizing diplomatic relations in the aftermath of the Agreed Framework have been, at best, reluctant (To be fair, it should be noted that the aforementioned breaches, in part, owed to domestic political pressure.).

Even so, President Clinton’s administration did achieve two critical successes: during its eight-year tenure, North Korea not only signed onto the Agreed Framework in 1994, but also placed a moratorium on all testing of ballistic missiles in 1999. Furthermore, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that “By October 1997, the spent fuel rods [which can be converted into nuclear weapons] were safely encased in steel containers, under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection. The [Yongbyon] reactor remained closed, construction on two other, larger reactors had stopped, and the reprocessing plant sat idle.” Indeed, a study authored by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace arrived at the following conclusion: had North Korea’s nuclear program not been suspended through the terms of the Agreed Framework, North Korea could have been able to produce between 500 and 700 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium by the end of 2001. This would be enough to produce more than 100 weapons and would have given Pyongyang sufficient amounts of material, conceivably, to export some to other countries while retaining a sizable nuclear arsenal of its own.

The above analysis yields one clear conclusion: that prospects for eventual reconciliation between the United States and North Korea are rooted in bilateral negotiations, which have exhibited great potential. In October 2002, for example, North Korea hosted the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly. During the exchange, it offered to terminate its enriched uranium program and submit to renewed inspections by the IAEA, if the United States signed a nonaggression pact and worked towards normalizing relations. The offer, had it gone through, would have facilitated close monitoring of central North Korean nuclear weapons sites, thereby allowing the United States, to a large extent, to contain the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. For reasons that are unclear, the Bush administration declined it.

The aforementioned offer outlines precisely the concessions that each side must make to the other. At this juncture, however, neither President Bush nor Kim Jong-Il appears to be ready to broker such a compromise. Indeed, both are charting a course of brinkmanship, one which will eventually reach a precipice. We can only hope that basic sensibility prevails.