IT IS A most unattractive task to prescribe any approach to North Korea (DPRK). And at the moment, defending the six-party talks as useful is a special challenge. The agreed-upon measures to stop North Korean plutonium production are being reversed in successive, well-publicized steps. Leader Kim Jong Il may be ill, perhaps seriously, and there are worries of instability within North Korea. But I believe that the current North Korean escalation is separate from the leader’s health and probably was planned months ago. It is related instead to the United States’ elections—a ploy to start afresh with the next president, and perhaps a hope to resell the plutonium shutdown to a new group of Americans.
Despite all this, I believe the six-party talks remain useful to U.S. interests, and should be part of a new administration’s policies. Although a negotiated denuclearization of the DPRK is unlikely without some internal shift within the state, the six-party process can be a valuable tool for a mix of U.S. goals.
In January, the United States will inaugurate its twelfth-consecutive president to have to face the challenge of North Korean behavior. How can the new president deal with the DPRK? Should he even try? Why bother if negotiations only lead to American frustration and the subsidizing of the North Korean regime? Can pressure be brought to bear? If it can, will it bring down the Kim rule without killing huge numbers of Koreans, both northern and southern?
Diplomacy to denuclearize North Korea has been centered since 2003 on the off-and-on six-party talks, hosted by Beijing with China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the United States participating. After years of delays, a “Joint Statement” of October 2007 prescribed a series of actions to be taken by North Korea and by the United States and others of the six parties. After new delays, North Korea had begun in 2008 initial disablement of its facilities for producing plutonium. Having “agreed to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs,” Pyongyang did make a partial declaration intended to identify nuclear facilities and material that they have produced in earlier years in return for rewards. Now, progress and steps toward denuclearization seem to have fallen apart. Details about the nature and sequence of steps that the United States and the DPRK are supposed to take are foggy. But regardless of the specifics, the recent reversals proclaim North Korea’s displeasure with the talks and the United States. Pyongyang may be starting to rebuild its reactor/reprocessing site for obtaining plutonium.
Yet, even if the current impasse ends, essential further steps to fulfill the other agreed-upon (and necessary) measures in the October 2007 six-party Joint Statement will still need to be taken: to deal with North Korea’s existing plutonium and the weapons containing it, to address DPRK cooperation with Syria and Iran, and to sort out whatever has become of the large and shadowy effort to enrich uranium as a hidden alternative to plutonium in nuclear weapons. But not surprisingly, a new administration in the United States will be skeptical about the six-party talks—and properly so.
The reasons for this near paralysis are simple. North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear-weapons power and has sought this for decades. It wants nuclear weapons for varied reasons, though probably not including combat use, as it knows that retaliation would be terminal. But certainly international status is one aim, and there are surely internal reasons as well. The principal strategy, however, is to help assure regime survival, which Pyongyang believes to be threatened if the country is ignored by the international community. Nuclear weapons bring attention, and with that, a state the DPRK can point to as an enemy—usually the United States—to justify internal hardship, generate notoriety and reap tangible sustenance from its neighbors.
But though North Korea needs economic carrots because of the desperate situation inside the country, they have almost no effect on the regime’s behavior both within and outside its borders. The DPRK leaders—at least some of them—are well aware of how burgeoning Asian economies have left them behind. Indeed, the once-poorer South Korea has become the world’s tenth-largest economy with an annual per capita income now reaching US$20,000. DPRK leaders believe that any open comparison with the South’s accomplishments would be an internal disaster. But even still they cannot bear the weight of change necessary to reform an economy, fearing—probably correctly—that the result would be a loss of the leadership’s control.
The upshot is that diplomacy has been unsuccessful and the six-party process has not worked. But neither have attempts at pressure been fruitful. The truth is that any new diplomatic negotiation, absent some kind of internal change in North Korea, is unlikely to be successful in disarming Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons.
So some would suggest that the six-party process and other negotiations with North Korea be abandoned and other methods—presumably harsher—begun.
But such a choice is not the best course for U.S. interests because tougher tactics are even less likely to work. First, the United States cannot do this alone. A harsher course will not work without cooperation from key countries such as South Korea or China, whose leaders currently balk at the risk of war or instability. Their essential help on a hard line is not available under present conditions. Second, pressing against this reluctance will damage American relationships in a part of the world that is vital to the United States for many reasons that go far beyond North Korea and its nuclear threat.
Persistence, quiet resolve and calmly working with allies and partners will serve U.S. interests better than loud speeches, threats or ineffective sanctions attempts.
The problem is that although North Korea’s nuclear-weapons activities are a threat to the United States—probably much more from possible leakage to terrorists than from direct attack—and a serious setback to global nonproliferation, the problem is even more a northeast-Asian regional issue.
South Korea has a greater stake in North Korea’s future than we do. Seoul is highly vulnerable to nuclear and conventional DPRK weapons. It is an important U.S. ally and increasingly important to long-term U.S. interests given China’s rise as a great power in the region.
The irony is that South Korea’s great success—an enormous tribute to Koreans, helped by U.S. development efforts and democratic example—has made South Korea comfortable enough to live at least with the status quo. There are now strong feelings of sorrow and sympathy toward the North in place of many years of alertness and dread. South Koreans are rightly horrified at any prospect of a war with North Korea. And, at the same time, while favoring unification in the abstract, they dread the potential cost of absorbing the North—its economic weakness and its people. North Korea is far poorer than East Germany was in 1989 and is all-but-without infrastructure.
The result is great apathy and a tendency of South Korean governments across the political spectrum to seek to avoid tensions—and even to pay North Korea what amounts to “protection” money.
Japan, also a key regional player and America’s vital ally in Asia, shares much frustration with the six-party talks, particularly given the unresolved issue of returning Japanese citizens abducted in the 1970s by North Korea. After Kim Jong Il took responsibility for some of the abductions in 2002, public attention to the issue has been intense. Japan also feels a strong sense of threat from North Korean missiles, especially if they are armed with nuclear warheads. America’s “nuclear umbrella” over Japan has never been more valuable.
Tokyo is an essential partner in negotiations and only the six-party talks provide a venue that includes Japan. And, if money were to be part of any solution, Tokyo would be a key contributor.
China’s relations with the United States are more complicated. Its size, its government system, its rise and new wealth, not to mention a trillion and a half dollars of foreign exchange—much of it invested in the United States—make for a very broad and also a very challenging relationship. Yet, cooperation on North Korea and Beijing’s role as convener of the six-party talks make Pyongyang’s denuclearization one of the key areas of potential collaboration between the United States and China.
The two states seem to want the same thing—a nonnuclear North Korea. But the difference is, Beijing is not willing to risk instability to get it. Though China saved North Korea from defeat in 1950, and some government and military contacts between the two countries persist, close observers agree that China does not want or support a nuclear North Korea. The 2006 missile and nuclear-weapons tests were seen as a direct affront to Beijing. However, stability is, as usual, the overriding Chinese goal and there is fear among Chinese leaders that upheaval in North Korea would result in millions of unwanted refugees crossing the border rivers. Politically, China is content to have a buffer state between it and South Korea. But if China is to be a responsible global stakeholder, it needs to be more active with its ungrateful ally.