- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

The year 2005 is a moment of truth for the Bush administration with regard to North Korea. Neither the six-party framework for multilateral talks nor the Bush administration’s “bilateral” talks with North Korea has produced progress toward North Korean nuclear disarmament. Will the Bush administration continue its course as North Korea expands its nuclear programs or will it shift course in a way that may bring about an end to North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development?

The gulf between the United States and North Korea on this issue may not be as impassable as it appears. Certainly, the rhetoric on both sides is tough. In its relentless quest for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all the North Korean nuclear programs, the U.S. is emphatic that it would not provide sufficient incentives unless significant progress had been registered by North Korea towards actual dismantlement.

North Korea, on the other hand, has been harping on the theme that the nuclear problem will be resolved only when the United States jettisons its policy of hostility towards North Korea. The indicatorsofwhatthey perceive to be the hostile policy have varied over the years, with the relative priorities among them shifting.

Moreover, North Korea has been insisting that the U.S. provision of specific compensations occur simultaneously with, not subsequent to, any North Korean actions towards dismantlement. However, a careful review of the two nations’ substantive positions reveals that the resolution of the issue would be possible. Based on my conversations with high-ranking officials of North Korea and the United States over the recent years, I believe that it should be possible for both sides to work out a comprehensible settlement that would safeguard the core interests of both. There are of course formidable impediments. The degree of contradiction in their respective interestsisprofound enough, but what compounds the difficulty of the search for a resolution are the deep mutual distrust, cognitive rigidity and the intensity of antagonistic ideological beliefs and values on the both sides. Furthermore, the other parties to the six-party talks at times pursue contradictory policies that undermine U.S. efforts.

The time is fast approaching for the Bush administration to go beyond pronouncements of lofty ideals, abstract formulations and the self-imposed confines of the six-party framework. The six-party frameworkhasservedthe interests of all the participants, including the United States, and has a continued role to play. However, that alone is not conducive to a creative exploration and early resolution of the issues of such fundamental importance. In the context of the six-party talks, the United States should continue bilateral discussions with the North Korean representatives at an upgraded level, whether inside or outside the official venue. The point is to elevate the level of representatives to a high level with reasonable speed so as to ensure the direct participation of Chairman Kim Jong-il in the process of dialogue. An exchange of views at the top leadership via proxy would be critical to the resolution of the issue.

Given the structure of power and the style of decision-making in North Korea, it is essential that the American views on the issue be presented directly and authoritatively to Chairman Kim by an American of stature and trust within the Bush administration.

The rationale is simple. Chairman Kim should have the opportunity to hear an undoctored version of the American conception of the requirements for the settlement and to make a final authoritative choice for the DPRK. It is conceivable that Chairman Kim would accept a road map leading to a phased and verifiable dismantlement of all the nuclear programs of concern to the United States at the cost and risk acceptable to the United States.

If that final choice were to be inconsistent with U.S. interests, the United States will have determined that fact soon enough and could proceed to launch a series of coercive measures and command more international and domestic support for having exhausted all other avenues. It may be that as many specialists believe, North Korea would not abandon its nuclear programs readily, and yet it may be compelled to consider dismantling its programs only when confronted with possible contingencies such as imminent attacks by U.S. forces or a perceived certainty of a collapse of the regime due to the extreme economic dislocations. Either way, it is time for the Bush administration to pursue a unified, imaginative and proactive policy with greater realism, flexibility and decisiveness. The alternative might be a grudging acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea, with all the adverse implications for U.S. interests.

Young C. Kim is professor emeritus of political science and former director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University. He is currently a visiting professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

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