WASHINGTON — North Korea’s surprise announcement of a secret nuclear-weapons program has thrown cold water on a recent warming of relations with South Korea and Japan that included family reunions, rejuvenated economic cooperation and, in particular, a stunning admission of past misdeeds against Japanese citizens. In a similar vein, some have argued that this new nuclear revelation is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s perverse but typical way of creating crisis to pull a reluctant Bush administration into serious dialogue.

Before the world accepts the North’s confession as a perverse cry for help, we must see this for what it is — a serious violation of a standing agreement that will in effect be North Korea’s last gambit at peaceful engagement with the United States and its allies.

North Korea’s actions constitute a blatant breakout from the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework designed to ensure denuclearization of the North. The implications of this act go beyond merely labeling it as a negotiating ploy. Arguably all of the improvements in North-South relations, including the June 2000 summit, breakthroughs in Japan-North Korea relations in 2001 and the wave of engagement with the reclusive regime that spread across Europe in 2000-2001, were made possible by what was perceived to be the North’s good-faith intentions to comply with a major nonproliferation commitment with the U.S. in 1994. The diplomatic advances that came after 1994 would not have been possible without the Agreed Framework. And now the North has proved it all to be a lie. Though U.S. diplomats have been careful not to declare the framework dead, the likelihood that Congress would appropriate funds for its implementation are nil at this point. Suspension of the framework is the de facto result for now.

If Pyongyang seeks to turn lemons into lemonade by turning its violation into a bargaining chip, then it is sorely mistaken. There will be little support in the world community, let alone the U.S., to “pay” for an investigation and a rescinding of the activities in question. The U.S. did this once with regard to a suspected underground nuclear site in 1998-1999; Bush hawks, who are now only more skeptical of the North’s intentions, will not engage in such attempted extortion again.

We are not, however, at crisis yet on the Korean Peninsula. Such an outcome awaits one more round of diplomacy in which the U.S. and its allies in Asia and Europe must impress upon Pyongyang in the strongest terms its need to address this violation. The most credible voices in this regard are Japan, as Koizumi must communicate to his recent host in Pyongyang that any hope of normalization and a large Japanese aid package remains otherwise distant; and China, whose interests in a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula are arguably more intense than those of Washington. A nuclear North Korea could potentially mean a nuclear Japan, which is Beijing’s worst nightmare.

Despite Kim’s genuine desire for economic reform and peaceful integration into the world community, apologists argue, the isolated and decrepit state of his country forces him to leverage security threats in case the intentions of those engaging North Korea are not benign. Since the Agreed Framework, however, we have been witness to eight years of engagement by South Korea, Japan, the European Union and the U.S. The message from these suitors has been clear: trade the WMD threat for economic reform and peaceful integration.

Up until now, the burden of proof was on the U.S. and its allies vis a vis this small and paranoid regime. Now the cooperation ball is in Kim’s court. He had better pick it up promptly and without ambiguity, or face complete isolation and neglect from the rest of the world.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.