North Korea has announced that it has nuclear weapons and that it is abandoning multilateral talks designed to keep the Korean Peninsula free of them. Still, there is less to Pyongyang’s declaration than meets the eye. North Korea has indicated in the past that it possessed nuclear arms, and its disdain for the multilateral six-party talks has long been apparent.
Nonetheless, the world cannot afford to dismiss Pyongyang’s announcement as mere brinkmanship. The other five members of the six-party negotiations must work harder to convince North Korea to honor its obligations and find a peaceful solution to the crisis brewing in Northeast Asia. That does not mean offering Pyongyang yet more enticements to keep talking; it means showing the North that its negotiating partners mean business.
North Korea has pledged several times not to develop nuclear weapons: when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), when it and South Korea released their North-South Declaration in the early 1990s, when it created the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994, and when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made the Pyongyang Declaration in 2002.
Each time Pyongyang has broken its promise and pursued clandestine programs to develop a nuclear arsenal. When caught, the North has alternated between denying the charges and claiming that it has been forced to cheat (while avoiding use of that term) because of circumstances. The ambiguity has given Pyongyang a wedge to divide its opponents and allowed it to extract more rewards for complying with promises already made. The latest announcement is in keeping with that tactic.
Last September, North Korean officials at the United Nations claimed that the country had “weaponized” its plutonium. In meetings with U.S. officials, North Korean negotiators are reported to have said their government possessed nuclear weapons, although their government never officially confirmed those statements. Apologists for the regime were quick to blame poor translations or faulty English. Experts and intelligence agencies have estimated that the North could have possessed nuclear devices for more than a decade.
Response to the latest move has been measured. Prime Minister Koizumi told the Diet that Pyongyang’s “true intentions are hidden,” even though the North “seems to be violating the spirit” of the Pyongyang Declaration. South Korean officials say the North Korean claim is unverified and do not see the latest developments as reason to abandon their policy of engagement with the North.
The U.S. has said it continues to seek a diplomatic solution to the problem and that it will work more closely with other members of the six-party talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — to try to convince the North to return to the negotiating table and abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Washington has also said those countries agree that pressure, rather than concessions, is the best way to achieve that goal. Pressure can succeed only if the other five parties to the negotiations maintain a united front.
North Korea has not closed the door to talks. Despite the seeming finality of last week’s announcement, the statement reiterated Pyongyang’s commitment both to the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a negotiated settlement.
It is tempting to see the North Korean move as designed to deflect the growing pressure on Pyongyang to resume negotiations after the U.S. toned down its rhetoric; President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address last month was notable for what it did not say about the North, especially in the light of his speech three years ago that had condemned the country as part of an “axis of evil.”
Even if the announcement is a gambit, ignoring it would be as big a mistake as overreacting. North Korea must learn that it is a part of a larger community and that it, like all other nations, is bound by law. North Korea has disregarded its international commitments. It has used promises as shields to avoid international scrutiny and discarded them when such moves were convenient. Its neighbors, most particularly China and South Korea, must convince Pyongyang that such behavior is unacceptable.
The world is prepared to accept the North as a member of the international community when Pyongyang acts in accordance with commonly accepted norms of behavior. Ignoring — or worse, rewarding — North Korean intransigence will only encourage more of the same. It is time to say enough.
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