An offer Pyongyang can’t refuse

by Hisahiko Okazaki

Past U.S.-North Korea negotiations on nuclear issues can be roughly classified into two types.

The first type relates to the Framework Agreement of the Clinton administration. The basic assessment from documents of the period was that a military confrontation might result in nearly 1 million military and civilian casualties, so the only option was compromise. The main points of compromise were that North Korea would freeze operations at the Yongbyon nuclear facility under the inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency and, in return, would receive supplies of heavy fuel oil and construction of a light-water nuclear reactor for power generation. North Korea abided by this compromise from 1994 to 2002.

The second type of negotiations relates to former U.S. President George W. Bush’s policy of calling North Korea part of the “axis of evil.” This policy was implicitly based on the assumption that North Korea would collapse.

The Framework Agreement was eventually suspended after North Korea was suspected of enriching uranium. Not only did North Korea not collapse but it resumed operations at Yongbyon and conducted a nuclear test in 2006.

In that sense, the Bush policy failed, although it might not have been destined to failure. After the nuclear test, Japan and the United States imposed tough sanctions on North Korea, which began experiencing economic troubles immediately. If the sanctions had continued another year, it might have been possible to get concessions from North Korea — not as a result of a Clinton-type “carrot” but because of Bush’s “stick.”

In hastening to reap the fruit of the sanctions, though, the U.S. State Department did not consult with its ally Japan. As a result, the freeze on North Korea’s Macau bank account was lifted, and the U.S. ended up conniving in the production of counterfeit $100 bills and removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In return, North Korea destroyed parts of the Yongbyon facility. But, now, North Korea has announced that the facility will be restored. It is quite obvious that North Korea will demand oil or money, at the very least, to halt the restoration.

In other words, North Korea was given absolutely unnecessary rewards in the final stage of the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has inherited the situation that existed before Clinton’s Framework Agreement. The situation is worse, because North Korea will probably not discard the plutonium that has already been produced. So all the U.S. can do at best is to prevent further production of plutonium.

Then what can we fall back on? Past six-party talks have not produced any substantive results. The only achievement has been North Korea’s showing up at meetings occasionally through China’s mediation. Any diplomat knows it is meaningless to negotiate for one party’s mere participation in exchange for substantive concessions.

The most successful U.S.-North Korea negotiations of the recent past were those conducted from 1998 to 1999 by U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry. He succeeded in getting North Korea to agree to on-site inspections of suspected underground facilities and to a suspension of Taepodong rocket launches. The only “rewards” given amounted to continuation of the Framework Agreement and some humanitarian aid.

It is noteworthy that Perry based his negotiations on consultation with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. He held repeated trilateral talks in each capital as well as in Hawaii. Thus the proposal he presented to North Korea had been approved by all three governments.

The Japanese representative at that time, Ryozo Kato, who later became ambassador to the U.S., still remembers these negotiations as the most successful and, for Japan, the most satisfactory.

So, how should we conduct future negotiations with North Korea? I have no particular objections to resuming the six-party talks. But as any diplomatic practitioner knows, as a general rule, bilateral talks are more suitable for resolving substantive issues than multilateral conferences.

I would like to pin my hopes for bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea on full consultations with Japan and South Korea. If diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea are negotiated, North Korea will demand an amount of compensation comparable to the $500 million paid to South Korea at the time of Japan-South Korea normalization in 1965.

The amount will be determined in the normalization talks, taking into consideration, above all, today’s dollar value, the exchange rate and the difference in population between North and South Korea. While the Japanese government has never mentioned a specific amount, some have suggested a sum as high as $10 billion. This amount would dwarf past concessions the U.S. has offered and could serve as the reward for achieving the comprehensive denuclearization of North Korea.

My proposal is to make this a joint asset of the Japan-U.S. alliance: • Negotiations for North Korean normalization with Japan and the U.S. would be integrated. • The complete denuclearization of North Korea and a complete solution to the abduction issue would be made an uncompromising condition. • The U.S. would enter the negotiations representing Japan and South Korea.

South Korea is the party most interested in U.S.-North Korea and Japan-North Korea normalization. Besides, it has a legitimate interest in the proper balance between the amount of compensation paid to North Korea and that paid to Seoul at the time of Japan-South Korea normalization.

With such an explicit and just goal, there is a legitimate justification in continuing to implement the sanctions imposed following the recent nuclear and missile experiments — no matter how tough they are — until that goal is achieved. This would bring about consistency in Japan-U.S. strategy toward Pyongyang.

Quite likely, North Korea may react strongly against this joint overture, but militarily its conventional force capabilities have declined and its nuclear weapons and missiles are thought to be still in the developmental stage. It will probably not have a strategy to counter the above proposals in the near future.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Thailand. This article is an English translation of a Japanese article that originally appeared in the May 13 Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun.