THERE IS agreement between Ambassador Bolton and me on some important things. But our differences lie in whether wishful rhetoric will be preferable to a set of poor alternatives. Mr. Bolton mostly criticizes recent and past diplomacy. My focus is on approaches that the new president’s team might consider.
Confronting the DPRK’s version of military-led totalitarian dictatorship has been a long story of frustration. “Eliminating the regime,” as Mr. Bolton calls for, is a hope, but the quick ways to effect that elimination can be risky, dangerous and costly.
Ambassador Bolton wants to rule out negotiations with the DPRK, which, as he puts it, “would allow us to move on to other measures.” But the “other measures” are thin. The most specific is to persuade China to increase pressure. This is nonproliferation policy that ignores regional realities.
Ambassador Bolton sees China as a critical player (as do I). He calls for more persuasion so that China will put at least some greater degree of pressure on the DPRK. But absent U.S. participation in the six-party talks, our ability to persuade China will be far less. Remember, North Korea wants to deal only with the United States, not the neighbors on which it is ungratefully dependent. The six-party process—which China values and enjoys—is a better way to hold allied support and work for real concessions. It complicates the DPRK’s diplomatic strategy, which is to seek compensation, delay and offer little in return.
Ambassador Bolton ignores a role for South Korea, an indispensable ally and player, which is most endangered by Pyongyang. Even Seoul’s previous left-leaning government was often supportive, at least when it was not reacting to careless rhetoric by American unilateralists. It now has a new president, interested more in reciprocity than just giving away the store to the DPRK. Seoul’s sensibilities—even contradictions—need to be handled with diplomatic tact.
Mr. Bolton’s undisguised contempt for the State Department is merely unhelpful rhetoric. He equates persistence with failure—a recipe for stasis. The department has many fine professionals and is able and willing to respond to strong leadership that clearly directs what is to be done.
Talks and negotiations are not an inherent concession of defeat, and should not be lightly pushed aside. Contrary to Mr. Bolton’s view, the costs of talks among working-level contacts are low. If high costs emerge from later negotiations, the costs are not from talking but from the attendant agreements.
There is not enough public information for me to join Mr. Bolton in criticizing the present state of six-party talks and negotiations. Of course, right now, the news is bad. But if there is any lesson in Asia, it is that patient persistence is essential. There is no reason for the United States to forego the diplomatic process. Moreover, there is no inherent risk in addressing North Korea’s various failings one after another, starting with nuclear weapons and moving on from there. If there ever is progress, an advance in one area is likely to presage progress in another.
The most important part of the six-party negotiations is not to lose sight of the United States’ goal—complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities. And step-by-step measures—such as shutting down DPRK capacity to produce more and more plutonium—is a valid tactic, so long as just one step on the path does not become the limit of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
Internal and more intense pressures—both economic and political—will force serious change on North Korea someday. To speed this shift, and foster cooperation with regional players, the United States should use both dialogue and pressure. Probing talks can be preliminary. Later, if results warrant, responsible negotiations can test sincerity. Verification is a key part of any action. False negotiating victories must be forsworn.
We cannot solve this alone. Talks need to be a part of a multilateral process, patiently pursued and carefully coordinated. Doing it this way reassures allies. There are no guarantees of success with an approach that uses both dialogue and pressure, but neither does slow, halting progress require us to quit.