North Korea is an International Problem
A lack of attention to the North Korea nuclear issue has pushed the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush dangerously close to getting sucked into Clinton-style negotiations with Pyongyang.
The correct approach would be to support the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors the North has vilified and ejected, and to report Pyongyang's violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the United Nations Security Council for action. A vicious militaristic state with nuclear weapons and long-range rockets that has violated the NPT is an international problem. That means the only way to contain the danger is if the major nations in the U.N. accept responsibility for it.
As long as it is perceived as only a problem for the United States, many of the countries that should be helping will instead subtly undermine America's negotiating position. While these countries do not want to see a nuclear North Korea, they don't want the U.S. to come out on top either, and don't mind blaming the present crisis on the Bush administration.
North Korea is desperately resisting moving the issue to an international forum and wants to deal directly with the U.S. Many voices in the U.S. think this is the right approach, too. They question how Washington can refuse to talk to a regime they see as crying out for attention. Some even suggest that, given the right security guarantees, the North might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons. The more responsible members of this camp insist the North would have to allow inspections by the IAEA. But, they say, the U.S. must be willing to negotiate. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the latest to horn in on this point, following his weekend meeting with North Korea's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Han Song-ryol and First Secretary Mun Jong-chol.
That raises the question of whether there are any reasonable conditions under which the current North Korean leadership is prepared to negotiate away its nuclear-weapons capabilities in a verifiable fashion. On this point, Pyongyang could not have made it clearer that it regards nuclear weapons as essential to its security. Sure, Pyongyang ties this to the fear of U.S. attack. But North Korea will always fear U.S. attack, or use it as a pretext, no matter what Washington does. The trigger for the current crisis is not North Korea's inclusion in the "axis of evil" but the Bush administration's move to enforce the inspection provisions in the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea. The North was supposed to start opening up to the IAEA last year. But there was no way it could comply, as this would risk revealing the extent of its pre-1992 illicit plutonium separation or the more recent uranium enrichment. While the Clinton administration had been willing to turn a blind eye to the failure to allow inspections, it looked as if the Bush administration was going to turn up the screws -- and that did it for the North.
But even though it is clear that Pyongyang is never prepared to negotiate its nuclear weapons away, some still argue it is worth delaying addressing North Korea's violations to explore what can be achieved through direct negotiations. That is Pyongyang's preferred option. The U.S. foreign policy establishment likes it too, as it employs their talents. So do the ex-Clinton types, looking for a chance to justify their earlier involvement in dealings with the North or gain renewed media attention.
Other countries like it because it becomes America's problem, and they don't mind if it takes America down a peg or two. Of course it means waving aside any talk of enforcing the NPT and putting the IAEA inspections on the shelf, something most East Asia specialists don't care very much about, or even know about for that matter.
Given the North's hostility to the IAEA, even if it did reach agreement with the U.S. on inspection of its nuclear facilities, this would be sure to be a watered-down version of the real thing. It might mean limited, passive visits by U.S. personnel, or some suitable third parties. No doubt, the North would be willing to help with public relations, to give enough appearance of genuine inspections to allow the issue to be papered over. Indeed the U.S. has been down this road before. North Korea should have complied with its obligations under the NPT in 1987. Instead Washington agreed in 1992 to give it more time -- another decade as it turns out. To let Pyongyang be in permanent noncompliance is to gut the NPT at a time when just the opposite is needed. Nonetheless, some still argue that North Korea's nuclear and conventional military capabilities mean the U.S. should swallow hard and reach an accommodation with Pyongyang. These "realists" argue that, while it is embarrassing and certainly not preferred, there is no other choice since trying to enforce agreements and the NPT might lead to war.
They point to Pyongyang's taste for brinkmanship: It can crank up weapons production, fire off rockets and scare the daylights out of South Korea and Japan. Rather than risk thousands of artillery shells landing on Seoul, the realists believe it's worth paying some more bribes to prevent any rash behavior.
To gain a sense of balance you have to see that North Korea's options are even more limited. Missing from these scare stories is how the problem looks from the other end of the telescope. Pyongyang can't feed its people. North Korea's resources are limited. There are numerous reasons for North Korea not to push too far, not least that Pyongyang will forego all chance of economic assistance if it does.
The trouble is this is ultimately a zero-sum argument. North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear-weapons state, or at least as an uninspected and suspected nuclear-weapons state. The U.S. cannot go along with that, no matter what, without knocking down whatever is left of legal barriers to nuclear-weapons acquisition by many other nations, not to mention the destabilizing effects in Asia.
Something will have to give. If the North pushes too hard and China and Russia can't or won't restrain Pyongyang, the result will be a nuclear Japan and numerous other countries will be encouraged to follow suit. That could lead to a solid belt of nuclear states, stretching from Korea to Algeria.
The current crisis is a critical one for the future of the NPT. The treaty has no enforcement mechanism, and arguably no country that wanted nuclear weapons has ever foregone them because it was a member of the NPT. Now North Korea has challenged the treaty in the most brazen way.
At this point the NPT can continue as a desiccated shell, a pious hypocrisy, a subject for foreign-policy foundation dinners but basically meaningless. Or, this could be a turning point used to fortify the treaty. The IAEA, which has not exactly been a tower of strength in the past, has found its voice and mission in the crisis and performed admirably.
Is the Bush administration now going to tell the IAEA to go easy on the worst nuclear violator of the NPT because its attention is occupied by Iraq? History will not be kind on today's leaders if they allow this to happen.