- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

The U.S.-South Korea summit on June 10 was useful as a way to improve personal bonds between President Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun, and reminding North Korea that in fact the U.S.-South Korean alliance is strong despite its recent strains. But unfortunately, nothing appears to have occurred at the summit that would significantly improve the two countries’ prospects of denuclearizing North Korea.

We need a fresh approach — and soon, since the six-party talks Mr. Bush is so rightly proud to have initiated may be nearing their last gasps.

A good deal of the U.S. conversation about North Korea policy concerns whether we should content ourselves with six-party talks, involving the two Koreas as well as Russia, China, and Japan, or complement them with bilateral negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. But this debate is not particularly productive. It begs the question what one should discuss after negotiations begin, and what type of basic strategy the United States should bring to the table.

Many supporters of bilateral talks would, it often seems, have us believe if only one made more effort to show the North Koreans proper deference and respect, their legitimate interests might be addressed and the crisis resolved. But this ignores the fact Stalinists don’t tend to be reasonable no matter how you approach them — unless you appeal to their core interests through some combination of incentives and threats in a way that is difficult to refuse. Some proponents of bilateral talks also seem to forget North Korea began cheating on its nuclear obligations when the Clinton administration was attempting a policy of concerted, bilateral contact, going so far as to send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang.

But the other side of the debate has major problems with its position too. Strident advocates of Mr. Bush’s six-party format sometimes seem to suggest any wavering from that approach would be tantamount to appeasement. However, this ignores that we have had plenty of direct contacts with extremely unsavory regimes before, and that nothing about such bilateral meetings prevents Washington from delivering very blunt, principled, resolute messages. Moreover, proponents of Mr. Bush’s six-party format need to recognize the theoretical reason for the six party talks is not translating into practical results. Rather than allow South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States to deliver a united message to Kim Jong-il about the need for him to denuclearize, it has split the five. China and South Korea do not believe Washington is being nearly flexible enough in the talks. They are unwilling to consider U.N. Security Council sanctions or other coercive approaches as long as they partially blame the United States for the failure of the negotiations to date.

The real question is not where or how to meet. It is what substantive agenda to pursue if talks resume.

We need to broaden our negotiating strategy. Focusing on the nuclear issue alone may seem sensible because it aims squarely at what most threatens U.S. security. It may also seem principled because it requires North Korea to fundamentally choose whether to honor its international obligations before anything else, like aid and trade benefits, can be discussed.

But this nuclear-only approach is not working. After important initial successes, it subsequently failed during the Clinton years, when it was attempted with a soft touch, and it has clearly failed during the Bush years, when we have taken a harder line (at least rhetorically).

And in fact, it will almost surely continue leading to a dead end. We are not offering North Korea enough real incentives to persuade it to give up what is effectively its one national resource. Nor are we threatening the North Koreans enough to turn around their behavior. When you negotiate with no carrots and no sticks, your prospects are poor.

The only way out of this diplomatic impasse is to change the nature of the problem — and in particular, to broaden it. We should indeed offer North Korea more, but only if they are prepared to do much more than denuclearize. This allows us to dangle many more carrots in Kim Jong-il’s face without being vulnerable to a charge of appeasement and without encouraging a dangerous form of behavior that would set a horrible precedent in the Korean context and beyond.

We should test North Korea’s willingness to reform economically and even politically, Vietnam-style. If Pyongyang proved willing to do so, the United States and its allies could help — for instance, aiding improvement of North Korean ports and roads, providing more donations of fertilizer and agricultural equipment, offering greater energy assistance, and gradually lifting U.S. trade sanctions. Japan, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would be likely to offer much more development assistance if we chose this path ourselves. But the price we demanded of North Korea for such generosity would have to be steep. In addition to denuclearizing over several years, North Korea would also have to give up chemical weapons and long-range missiles, cut its conventional military substantially to reduce the enormous drain it imposes on the economy as well as the threat it poses to Seoul, begin a dialogue with the Red Cross about human-rights conditions in its prisons, and allow Japanese kidnapping victims to go home.

It is not necessary to make everything happen immediately, or to write it all down in treaty form on a signed piece of paper. But without a broader framework, we will be back in the same old dead-end negotiation about nuclear weapons that could easily make getting North Korea back to the bargaining table a Pyrrhic victory. And if such a U.S. plan is rejected by North Korea, out of fear of reform or simple spite at the international community, we would be in a much stronger position to argue to others in the six-party talks that whatever their druthers, the time for more coercive measures had finally come.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and coauthor, with Mike Mochizuki, of “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea.”


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