NORTH KOREA is and will remain a threat to the United States and our friends and allies as long as it retains nuclear weapons, which likely means as long as it exists. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has an unequalled record of breaking its commitments and proliferating dangerous technologies to other rogue states. Recent events simply confirm a sixty-year-long reality in Pyongyang.
Unhindered by press reports of Kim Jong Il suffering a stroke, or speculation about regime crisis, the DPRK’s efforts to sustain its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs continue in plain view. First, North Korea suspended “disabling” the Yongbyon nuclear facility and threatened to reverse the process entirely to protest not being removed from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. This ploy is yet another example of the North’s consistently successful negotiating tactic of selling the same concessions again and again for higher and higher prices. Even advocates of the vaunted six-party talks now worry that the State Department’s shamelessly submissive approach is harming U.S. interests.
Then, Jane’s Defence Weekly and other sources revealed the existence of a ballistic-missile test facility, under construction for the last eight years, and capable of launching North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 missiles. Jane’s noted, among other things, how similar the facility’s rocket-engine test stand was to the Shahid Hemat test stand near Tehran. This was a stunning parallel to the North’s cloning of the Yongbyon reactor, on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria, also undertaken entirely during the pendency of the talks. Given extensive ballistic-missile sales and research-and-development relationships between North Korea and Middle Eastern regimes like Iran and Syria over the years, the nuclear cooperation was powerful evidence that the North was actually expanding its weapons programs under the cover of the six-party talks.
State’s negotiators dismissed the Syrian reactor as ancient history—not evidence of a current, ongoing nuclear program—and stressed that the newly discovered missile test facility was not operational. That last explanation lasted only a few days before press reports emerged that North Korea had conducted a static-firing test at its newly constructed facility. This testing, if confirmed, is a plain violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which should have brought a strong reaction from Washington and other Security Council members. Instead—silence.
This sad story could go on at length.1 What will it take, finally, to get a realistic policy for dealing with North Korea? Let’s start with the basics. Negotiation is like all other human activity: it has costs as well as benefits. Our State Department’s central cultural problem is that it appears institutionally incapable of weighing the costs accurately. Even in those few instances where a cost-benefit assessment actually occurs, the costs are rarely judged to be greater than the benefits, and that tends to occur when congressional or other domestic-political factors constrain the department’s bureaucracy from doing what it really wants to do. State disdains these “outside” pressures as unfortunate (if inevitable) interferences with its “real” work, to be overcome or ignored at the earliest opportunity.
Moreover, State’s negotiation superhighway never seems to have any exit ramps. Repeated failures to reach acceptable agreements, growing evidence of a problem’s severity, and countless examples of falsehoods or cheating by the other side are all dismissed as if nonexistent. I learned this lesson to my dismay in the cases of both North Korea and Iran, thinking that demonstrating the futility of negotiating with these regimes would allow us to move on to other measures. I found that too many in the State Department simply could not process the concept of failed negotiations. Switching travel metaphors, negotiations for State are like the famous Eagles song “Hotel California”: you can check out of negotiations anytime you want, but you can never leave.
Applying cost-benefit analysis to negotiations is neither new nor reflective of a general hostility to diplomacy. During his tenure as secretary of state, Dean Acheson resisted efforts to conduct early negotiations with the Soviets, preferring to do so only from a position of real strength in Europe, a clear demonstration of cost-benefit analysis in fact if not in name. Indeed, this debate is not between those who never favor negotiations and those who see their wisdom. The debate is actually between those who favor negotiations to resolve 99.44 percent of international disputes (as in the Ivory Snow ad), and those who believe in negotiations 100 percent of the time. Understanding that North Korea falls in the 0.56 percent category is thus the key.
More specifically, the basic flaw of the six-party talks is the foundational assumption that North Korea could be talked out of its nuclear weapons. There has never been a shred of evidence, over nearly two decades of nuclear negotiations, that the North is truly prepared to make such a dramatic shift in its strategic thinking. There have only been statements by the North’s diplomats and propagandists that too-willing U.S. negotiators have seized upon to cobble together “nuances” and “hints” of negotiating flexibility. Of course, if I were in charge of the DPRK’s nuclear program, the last people to whom I would explain our capabilities and objectives would be the North’s diplomats. They may be among the least informed in Pyongyang’s elite concerning their country’s nuclear program.
The United States made tactical mistakes from the outset of the six-party talks, notably in their sole focus on the DPRK’s nuclear program. By agreeing to exclude chemical and biological weapons, and ballistic-missile and conventional-forces issues, we left the North in undisputed possession of its greatest in terrorem threats against South Korea. This is a common fallacy of arms-control negotiations, namely their tendency to focus on only limited aspects of a broader problem, thus providing false promises of progress and stability. The main political consequence, especially given two successive weak and appeasement-minded South Korean governments, was a hopelessly weak U.S. bargaining position.
Moreover, even in the narrow nuclear field, successive waves of U.S. negotiators limited their scope to the plutonium route to nuclear weapons, and then constricted it even further to an obsession with Yongbyon. This flaw was evident from the first negotiations over the 1994 Agreed Framework, and continues right on to the Bush administration’s last gasp. The smaller the soda straw though which the negotiations were conducted, the easier it was for North Korea to continue or expand other aspects of its threatening nuclear and missile activities, and the less likely there would be any fundamental shift by the North.
So, if negotiations don’t work, what is left? Some argue that President Bush 43 followed a “hard line” in his first term, but that the policy failed. In fact, internal conflict marked Bush’s first term, which the National Security Council mechanism failed to resolve, leaving an incoherent and contradictory policy. In the second term, policy coherence emerged, unfortunately all in the wrong direction, embracing a diplomacy doomed to failure. The ideal of a correct and coherent North Korea policy will sadly, therefore, never emerge in the Bush presidency.
The only long-term acceptable outcome is the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, or, as American Enterprise Institute–scholar Nick Eberstadt once titled his book, “the end of North Korea.” The North will not be negotiated out of its nuclear weapons: they are its ultimate trump card against those with “hostile intent” on the outside like the United States and Japan, and in fact, they are also the ultimate trump card inside the North’s bizarre political system. Accordingly, the only realistic way to deal with the nuclear problem is to eliminate the regime itself.
To accomplish this objective, the United States needs to raise the pressure on the DPRK, to utilize fully the capabilities we already have to choke off the North’s import and export trade in weapons and materials of mass destruction, and to cut off once again its access to international financial markets. The Proliferation Security Initiative has already had a significant impact, as did the Treasury Department’s forceful pursuit of North Korea’s financial assets until the State Department’s shameful capitulation on Banco Delta Asia, thus allowing the North renewed international access and legitimacy. North Korea’s systemic weaknesses make it vulnerable to such pressure. By negotiating with the North and providing it with tangible economic and political benefits for negligible concessions on the nuclear front, we are propping up a regime so susceptible to collapse that even small increments of pressure threaten it.
And the means for pressure are at hand. The real key is China, and here we face the reality that China has to date preferred a divided Korean Peninsula. We need to change Beijing’s mind. By making China’s continued support for the odious Pyongyang regime more costly in terms of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, we should push for Beijing to recognize that Korean reunification is inevitable. Beijing was outraged by North Korea’s October 2006 nuclear test and its tolerance for Kim’s regime is likely much lower than generally appreciated. I do not underestimate the difficulty of persuading China on this point, but there is little doubt that China has the economic leverage to collapse the DPRK superstructure. We should assure China that we will work to minimize the possibility of refugee flows across the Yalu River, with their attendant humanitarian problems, and will bear a major part of the costs associated in the short term with North Korea’s collapse. The United States and South Korea can also make it plain that a reunited Korea will not be a military threat to China. Quite the opposite: a peaceful Korean Peninsula will reduce security costs for everyone in northeast Asia.