- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Senior government officials rarely have the time or inclination to read analysis prepared by their non-governmental colleagues. Although this tendency often may spare them a good deal of bad advice, there are occasions when perusal of unclassified materials even those produced by themselves years ago may yield valuable and relevant insights. A case in point is the compelling critique of "U.S Policy Toward North Korea" prepared almost four years ago by a working group chaired by Richard Armitage and including Paul Wolfowitz.
The study's findings, presented in the March 1999 issue of the National Defense University's Strategic Forum, identify clearly many of the shortcomings of the Clinton administration's approach toward Pyongyang and argue strongly for a more comprehensive, predictable and proactive policy.
Many of the studies recommendations are relative today. For example, even more so than was the case in 1999, there is an urgent need for a reality check in Washington to realign U.S. policy to the dramatically changed nuclear circumstances in North Korea. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell may decline to characterize the new situation as a crisis, it is difficult to find a more appropriate term for the variety of nuclear threats posed by Pyongyang. North Korea's efforts to expand its plutonium-based arsenal of nuclear weapons is probably the least of our worries, notwithstanding the country's potent ballistic missile delivery force.
A greater nuclear nightmare and one that is within the realm of the possible is the export by North Korea of nuclear material, and even nuclear weapons, to terrorists. Certainly, groups such as al Qaeda must be attracted by the prospect of unsafeguarded nuclear material controlled by an impoverished and isolated regime which already has broken many of its international nonproliferation commitments. Pyongyang has shown few qualms in the past about exporting dangerous commodities to anyone for the right price, and Washington can ill afford to discount the possibility of nuclear trade with parties who covet weapons for purposes other than deterrence.
Almost as worrisome is a scenario in which North Korea's nuclear- weapons gambit is met by U.S. and international acquiescence. Should that occur and North Korea acquire a de facto nuclear weapons status similar to India and Pakistan, it is likely to fuel a regional arms race in which Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pursue nuclear weapons. It is doubtful that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could withstand such defections, which also would have a domino effect in other regions.
One of the most prescient observations in the Armitage report is the need for U.S. policy to be informed by clear answers to two questions : (1) What do we want from North Korea? and (2) What price are we prepared to pay? At the moment, the Bush administration appears unable to agree upon answers to either of those questions.
The immediate objective for U.S. policy should be the abandonment by North Korea of its nuclear-weapons program and the implementation of an intrusive international inspection regime. Any suggestion by the United States that it is resigned to the expansion of the North Korean nuclear arsenal conveys precisely the opposite message.
The more difficult question to answer concerns the costs Washington should be prepared to incur to achieve the objective of North Korean nuclear disarmament. At a minimum, the United States must anticipate a heavy investment of diplomatic capital if it is to build an effective international coalition that includes the active participation of China and Russia, neither of which currently shares U.S. threat assessments. Even greater political capital will need to be expended quickly to avert a deepening rift in U.S.-South Korean relations, and to harmonize U.S., South Korean and Japanese diplomatic strategy.
Washington will soon have the opportunity to articulate its multilateral approach at the United Nations when the Security Council confronts the issues of North Korea's defection from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the United States should also engage directly with Pyongyang without preconditions and over an agenda that includes but is not limited to nuclear weapons. Other issues for discussion, which could form the basis for a comprehensive deal, are non-nuclear energy resources, economic aid, security assurances, missile exports, conventional force reductions, anti-terrorism cooperation and full normalization of relations.
The most painful cost for the United States and its allies to contemplate, but one that cannot be wished away, is military action should diplomacy (and economic sanctions) fail to accomplish North Korea's nuclear disarmament. Although the consequences of any counterproliferation initiative are unpredictable and potentially enormous, so too are the costs of inaction. Unless we are prepared to bear those costs, we are not well-served by an ambitious declaratory policy of combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to other states and terrorist organizations.
Unfortunately, the authors of the Armitage report did not provide a detailed plan for how to proceed if diplomacy toward North Korea fails. What they did make clear is that time does not work in favor of the United States. It is advice that is not yet reflected in current U.S. policy toward North Korea.

William C. Potter is director of the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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