- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

The Bush administration’s coercive multilateral strategy to stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation seems destined to fail, because it is unwilling to plausibly address North Korea’s stated security needs. Thus, Pyongyang stated on Aug. 30 after multilateral talks in Beijing that it sees no benefit in further dialogue with Washington. Two questions now merit examination: (1) what went wrong and (2) where should we go from here?

The first question is easy to answer. The Bush administration, beset by internal struggles in the National Security Council, never crafted effective policy to accomplish U.S. national security objectives concerning North Korea. The administration did properly identify key objectives that include stopping Pyongyang’s development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and technology transfer but never accepted the reality that the U.S. lacks levers to force compliance by Chairman Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s de facto head of state. “Pre-emptive” war is not a credible option for reasons outlined below. The only practical way to achieve U.S. objectives is through mutually beneficial diplomacy — not the zero-sum approach favored so far by the administration.

Second, where should we go from here? The answer to this question is also relatively easy, although implementing the solution may be difficult. Bush administration officials should acknowledge its North Korea policy requires calibration to achieve its major North Korea security objectives and maintain credibility as a regional leader.

Some suggestions:

(1) Put forward a confidence-building package of long-term security and economic benefits that will persuade North Korea to verifiably give up its major nuclear bargaining chip.

(2) Engage in direct dialogue with the regime it publicly reviles. Multilateral coordination with regional states is important, but any forum that places a single party wholly on the defensive is bound to fail. Use multilateral talks to craft principles to guide bilateral dialogue among participants, including the U.S. and North Korea.

(3) Discard two fallacious assumptions that apparently underwrite U.S.-North Korea policy:

Fallacy No. 1 is that an aggressive, hard-line policy can promote near-term regime change in North Korea. Absent war, success is unlikely. And a second Korean War is not a credible option, especially if China and Russia perceive it to threaten their national security interests. To be sure, the combined forces of the United States and South Korea could obliterate North Korea’s command, control and war-fighting capabilities over time, but probably not before North Korea kills hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South Koreans, Japanese and Americans living in these two allied states through either pre-emptive or retaliatory attacks. North Korea fields the world’s fifth-largest military on highly defendable terrain and one of the world’s largest special operations forces. It possesses thousands of well-protected cannons and rockets, and hundreds of ballistic missiles that can deliver conventional and chemical, if not biological and nuclear, weapons against targets throughout densely populated South Korea, much of Japan, and possibly parts of the Western U.S. War could devastate regional economies and require hundreds of billions of dollars for reconstruction.

The second fallacious assumption is that the United States cannot negotiate directly with North Korea to achieve U.S. objectives. Three examples prove that negotiating with North Korea is doable, albeit difficult. These are the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which stopped Korean War combat and has kept an uneasy peace for 50 years; the 1994 U.S.-North Korean nuclear Agreed Framework, which verifiably prevented North Korea from acquiring enough material to build 50-100 nuclear weapons for eight years from November 1994 through December 2002; and a bilateral 1999 ballistic missile test moratorium agreement.

In going forward, the Bush administration would be wise to honor history’s lessons by adding the following measures to its North Korea approach:

• Establish clear political objectives before entering negotiations. What are the administration’s goals — stopping nuclear proliferation or displacing Kim Jong-il (or a like-minded successor)? If the latter, we should mobilize military forces to achieve the inevitable “pyrrhic victory” and massive financial resources for reconstruction.

c Offer something of clear tangible value to North Korea. Flesh out vague promises of a “bold” approach to attract Pyongyang’s serious attention, because North Koreans do not believe Washington has fully honored its commitments under the Agreed Framework and ballistic missile test moratorium agreement, for example.

c As any powerful nation (or person) can do, be humble and respectful to all parties in the negotiations. Paranoid North Koreans need no reminder the United States is the world’s sole superpower. Neither do the other major actors in Northeast Asia. Macho name-calling will not achieve our objectives. Overly aggressive, arrogant behavior is counterproductive, as it stimulates Pyongyang’s efforts to put the U.S. in its place — from North Korea’s perspective. This is especially true in light of denunciations of North Korea’s government by U.S. neoconservatives, including some administration officials.

We have a crisis on our hands with the North Korean nuclear issue and time is of the essence. Historically, wars start more often than not by accident or miscalculation at times of high tension. Tensions are high now. Now is the time for the Bush administration to quickly craft an effective, diplomatic solution.

Paul Chamberlin, a Korea specialist since the 1970s, is the author of “Korea 2010.” Bill Taylor is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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