- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

With Six Party talks on North Korea set to resume on Feb. 25, policy-makers are now fine-tuning their talking points and negotiating strategies for the Beijing meeting.

But diplomatic huddles in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, should not cause observers to confuse motion with movement. The aim of the parlay, the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” termination of North Korea’s nuclear program is the diplomatic equivalent of a six-rail shot into the side-pocket of a snooker table — more than a long shot.

This is not to say the diplomatic effort should not be made. It should, if for no other reason than to identify Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition as the source of the current challenge to international stability and security. However, the diplomatic process, which promises to be complex and protracted, should not be allowed to distract responsible authorities from other, complementary activities that need to be addressed in parallel.

There are several reasons to be guarded about quick success. Verification issues will be at the heart of the negotiations, and it is doubtful either the administration or Congress would accept anything less than complete transparency.

It is also difficult to imagine North Korea granting it. And one has to ask why Kim Jong-il would settle now, in an election year, with a president who has expressed his loathing for the Dear Leader, especially when Democratic challengers critical of the administration’s North Korea policy are calling for more active and direct engagement? At a minimum, one should expect Pyongyang to use the verification issue to undermine consensus among the other parties.

Although the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia share the goal of a non-nuclear North Korea, the road to that end may stress underlying political fault lines within the coalition. Interests among the five parties are similar — not identical. North Korea will have ample opportunities to drive tactical, and perhaps ultimately strategic, wedges into the coalition.

Beyond the issue of the verification regime, there is the potential for regime collapse and chaos on the Peninsula should pressure be ratcheted up on Pyongyang. If forced to choose between chaos and a “half-loaf” solution to the current impasse — such as a freezing of the Yongbyon facility — some members of the coalition might break and opt for a “half-loaf plus,” leaving North Korea with an ambiguous nuclear deterrent.

Another significant non-nuclear fissure, the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, also could unsettle the diplomacy. In support of Japan, the United States has insisted the abductee issue be addressed in the Six Party talks, while South Korea and China have advised Japan to deal with matter on a bilateral basis with North Korea.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has threatened to torpedo the talks if Japan raises the issue, but how would an unexpected willingness to return all family members affect the diplomacy?

The fact is North Korea has a number of “good behavior” cards up its sleeve that could send the talks into the most unexpected detours at the most inopportune times. Policymakers frequently focus on bad behavior by North Korea.

What if, during the talks, Kim Jong-il announced North Korea’s deterrent capability permits him to reduce the Korean People’s Army and pull back artillery tubes from the Demilitarized Zone? Or what if, in jumpsuit and sunglasses, he landed in Seoul for the much-awaited return summit?

In short, no one should expect a breakthrough along the lines of the apparent conversion of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya. So, anticipating a period of intricate and protracted diplomacy, the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) and United States should undertake some additional, prudential defense planning.

The centerpiece of this effort would be a series of crisis simulations, designed to explore the operational and strategic implications of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Multiple scenarios should be developed because North Korean behavior and capabilities are anything but certain.

This would allow defense officials to understand the more complex issues associated with the deterrence of, and defense against, a nuclear-armed adversary. Detailed analysis also should explore North Korean leadership assumptions about escalation control and crisis termination.

Developing a common base-line understanding of the challenge posed by a nuclear North Korea would allow planners to explore adjustments to defense posture and capabilities:

• Intelligence priorities might be adjusted.

• Assured command-and-control investments could be explored.

• Consequence management plans and capabilities could be updated.

• New programs to address North Korean underground bunkers and other counterforce options should be investigated.

• Finally, possible refinement of existing concepts of operation for the defense of South Korea could be reviewed.

Since the Republic of Korea inescapably bears the greater risk in event of aggression by a nuclear-armed North Korea, R.O.K. authorities must pay particular attention to issues that go beyond immediate operational needs and disproportionately affect the future of the Korean republic and its citizens.

In particular, South Korean officials must ask how much they might ultimately be willing to invest in ballistic missile defense, continuity of government and consequence management programs, many of the same issues the United States had to wrestle with for the better part of the Cold War.

For the United States, the issues raised on the Korean Peninsula are a wake-up call for a hard rethinking of regional deterrence strategy and are somewhat analogous to the circumstances that triggered the debate over flexible response strategy as a successor to mutual assured destruction strategy in the 1960s. There are, however, very significant differences.

Current U.S. conventional superiority means the United States does not need to rely as heavily on nuclear weapons as it did in Europe during the Cold War. Also, rogue nations cannot yet equally threaten the United States as well as they can U.S. regional allies, saddling the allies with disproportionate risk. It is less a case of Berlin for Washington than Seoul for Pyongyang.

These changes, along with the possible use of other weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological as well as the more established chemical agents, beg for a reappraisal of regional deterrence strategy over the rest of the decade.

Thus, while diplomacy must continue, serious planning for possible failure should supplement it. Not only is such planning prudent, it should actually facilitate diplomacy as a sober reminder to all parties of what is at stake.

Moreover, this unprecedented degree of advanced planning cooperation between the United States and South Korea would be consistent with a maturing of the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance. The increasingly young, post-Korean War population in South Korea hungers for recognition of their status as a power poised for entry into the ranks of the top 10 industrialized powers in the world. South Korea deserves the recognition, and the responsibility that goes with it.

Christopher Lamb, former deputy assistant defense secretary for resources and plans, is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University. James J. Przystup is an INSS senior fellow and a former member of the State Department policy planning and the defense secretary’s planning staffs. The views in this article are the authors’ and not those of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.

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