North Korean Latitude

Pyongyang’s gone nuclear. How can we deal with it? America has a lot of options, and we should consider them all before returning to the table.

The North Korean legacy left by the Bush administration to President Obama reminds one of the baseball manager's rant to his centerfielder's incessant errors: "You screwed up that position so badly no one will ever be able to play it again."

Bush's minions came to power determined to destroy the Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era agreement designed to end the North's production of plutonium and ultimately to prevent the use of existing stocks for building weapons. In return, North Korea was to receive two light-water nuclear reactors and heavy fuel oil to relieve immediate energy shortages, as well as a gradual normalization of relations. Pyongyang at one point even agreed to a missile-test moratorium and proposed an end to the production and export of medium- and long-range missiles. Besides, the North had and still has an effective conventional deterrent-the ability to quickly destroy Seoul with massive artillery-which makes American bombing of North Korean facilities extremely difficult, whatever our bombast.

Mr. Bush's preference for "regime change" over diplomacy scrapped the Agreed Framework and resulted in North Korea's production of more plutonium, development of nuclear weapons and a weapons test.  In its twilight years, the Bush administration resigned itself to negotiations in the six-party forum, buying off parts of North Korea's nuclear-weapons capabilities-reverting to Clinton's strategy, but no longer labeling it as "rewarding bad behavior." The biggest difference now is that we're dealing with a nuclear North Korea.

When our private delegation visited Pyongyang in early February, senior North Korea officials, including their top six-party negotiator, gave us their version of what needs to be done.

They want to resume negotiations and proceed step-by-step toward denuclearization.  Getting rid of what they called their "weapons" would be the last step. They want first to conclude phase two of the six-party agreement by disabling their plutonium-production capabilities, which is currently held-up by the absence of promised fuel oil and a dispute over the possibility of verification. They would then proceed to the agreements' third phase and dismantle their plutonium structure, but only if we gave them light-water reactors.

The North would give up their nukes under variously expressed conditions related to ending American hostility, removing the U.S. nuclear umbrella or ending our alliance with the South-perhaps all these things. In short, denuclearization-or getting back to where we were supposedly moving when the Bush administration took office-is at best a long way off. Whether this is their bottom line remains to be seen.

The Obama administration has the unenviable choice of continuing the six-party negotiating process, finding a faster formula for achieving denuclearization or benignly neglecting Pyongyang until it becomes more accommodating. Quick-fix rhetoric is not likely to entice Pyongyang to abandon its weapons. How long is the United States prepared to live with a nuclear North Korea that possibly contributes to proliferation?

The light at the end of the tunnel remains dim in trying to deal with this opaque, often mendacious, regime. The best solution is indeed regime change, but we do not really know how to do that with anything approximating an acceptable level of risk. A broader policy including long-term engagement-like the one advanced for a decade by South Korean leaders-produced little change in the North. An international version of this approach would face fierce opposition in Washington, continuing already present disagreements with Japan and South Korea. On the other hand, benign neglect might be appropriate, but it inevitably leads to Northern provocations, fears of war and a return to talks. We can put down a serious proposal to try to secure its nuclear weapons, but it is hard to see North Korea ready to give them up anytime soon. That means we are most likely, as Secretary Clinton indicated during her Asian trip, to resume the six-party talks and at least seek to prevent the North from accumulating more plutonium.

If we proceed incrementally, as the six powers agreed to in 2007, we need to stiffen safeguards against proliferation and reassure Japan and South Korea about our deterrent capability, lest domestic political forces compel them to develop nuclear weapons. At a minimum, we will need close strategic consultations on this score not only with Tokyo and Seoul, but also Beijing. The North's vitriol against the South Korean government and apparent intention to test-fire a long-range missile-which could halt negotiations for an uncertain period-has worsened the diplomatic atmosphere.

In resuming negotiations we need to remember that North Korea is a pitifully weak state with a large but somewhat archaic military apparatus. The country is isolated, has no allies and may well face a turbulent political transition. In devising policy we should not forget-which we usually do-the depressing fact that the North has an enormous humanitarian problem, with much of its people in deep distress and little prospect for improvement.

Fashioning a Korean policy is hard. Aside from the difficulty of keeping our friends and allies singing from the same sheet, Washington has been polarized not only over policy, but also over the facts. The level of discourse can be venomous. Developing a coherent, sustainable strategy toward North Korea would be a great achievement. Actually implementing that strategy would be heroic, hopefully without a bad centerfielder.


Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, was former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.