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New approach needed in six-party talks

by Michael O'hanlon

WASHINGTON — As the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program resume late this month, the outlook for success remains as poor as ever. The Bush administration continues to take a firm stand, insisting on complete, verifiable and irreversible North Korean nuclear disarmament before any discussions on broader issues such as economic aid or the lifting of trade sanctions. North Korea, with few national assets besides its nuclear program to bargain with, appears loath to give the nukes up without getting something substantial for them.

Meanwhile, the core logic of the six-party talks is not working very well. President George W. Bush’s idea was that the United States as well as South Korea, Japan, China and Russia would together pressure North Korea to comply with its existing obligations under three separate treaties not to develop nuclear weapons.

This approach sounds logical, but it is failing in large part because China and South Korea in particular find Washington’s approach to negotiations too inflexible. Partly as a result of the fiasco over U.S. intelligence estimates of Iraqi weapons capabilities, they have also begun to doubt American claims that North Korea even has an underground uranium-enrichment program — the discovery of which led to the current nuclear crisis in the first place.

It is important that these six-party talks not be wasted. With North Korea now believed to have up to eight nuclear weapons, the crisis is becoming more serious. We need new ideas for addressing the situation — different from the Bush administration’s, but also different from the ideas of other countries and Democrats in the U.S. to date. In fashioning an alternative, we should emphasize several key principles and concepts:

First, we should remember what went right in 1994. Even if the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” could not prevent North Korea from later cheating on the deal, it capped North’s nuclear program (inherited from the first Bush administration) for close to a decade. And that deal resulted when we used not just carrots but sticks in dealing with Pyongyang. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry came very close to explicitly threatening war if North Korea did not stop its nuclear program.

Moreover, Washington was clearly going to head to the United Nations Security Council to demand sanctions on North Korea if it did not agree to verifiably freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear program. We will need sticks today as well.

The threat of a limited military strike against the North’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon is no longer very credible, mostly because the North Koreans have reprocessed and removed their plutonium from that site over the last 18 months. But economic coercion may still be appropriate if negotiations fail — and may need to be threatened to make negotiations work.

Second, we should give Bush his due. The six-party talks are a good idea; multilateralism is not a bad thing in the East Asia context just because the king of unilateralism is the one who thought of it. The Bush administration’s multilateral proliferation security initiative — which clamps down on Pyongyang’s illicit weapons and drug trading when North Korean ships try to enter the territorial waters of participating countries — is an innovative and useful idea. And even those of us who don’t like the term “axis of evil” should remember that the Pyongyang regime is as malevolent as any on Earth, especially toward its own people. We must not forget who we are dealing with.

Third and finally, we need a fresh policy. Bush may have some of the process and the basic diagnosis of the situation right, but his diplomacy is flailing. The only solution, if we must offer North Korea more in order to convince it to make a deal, is to demand much more as well. Any aid and other benefits must do more than buy out an illicit weapons program or two. They must assist North Korea in a process of structural reform like Vietnam’s or China’s. The latter two countries proved that major change can occur within the context of a communist system.

Admittedly, major change in Vietnam and China happened only when top leadership changed, something we do not expect in North Korea soon. But Kim Jong Il has shown some limited interest in reform in his decade in power so there may be some hope. Our strategy should be designed to test that possibility. It should also attempt to improve the prospects for reform by providing a clear vision about where North Korea and the outside world’s relations with it could go if Pyongyang made deep economic and military reforms and began some human-rights policy improvements as well.

Not every change would need to be negotiated at once; not every one would even need to be part of a formal deal (though monitoring and verification would, as Kerry also underscored in his June 1 speech, be of critical importance). But a clear vision, and serious strategy, should guide the entire effort.