- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

There has been a remarkable international chorus of demands that North Korea return to the six-party talks on nuclear programs and discontinue the development and test-firing of missiles. However, it is also noteworthy that the demands for North Korea’s return to the six-party talks are often accompanied by calls for bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea whether or not such talks would occur in the context of the six-party framework. The crux of the matter, however, is not a particular format of meeting. While the format is important, it is not as crucial as the will to seek political settlement by dealing creatively with apparently irreconcilable core interests of both sides.

For its part, North Korea has to make a strategic decision to dismantle all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs completely, irreversibly and verifiably. In a corresponding manner the United States has to transform what North Korea perceives as a policy of hostility, recognize its sovereign rights and establish diplomatic relations. It is reasonable to argue that a perceived possibility of regime change in Pyongyang, an assumption about a likely economic collapse and a total preoccupation with the events of higher priority unfolding elsewhere are major impediments to timely, imaginative and flexible management of the North Korean issue.

Not to be minimized is the delimiting influence of the belief system, and strong moral and religious values attributed to the president and his advisors on the style and substance of U.S. policy toward North Korea. The repeated expressions of president’s repugnance toward the North Korean regime and its leader are well known. Together with these constraints on the part of the United States, the North Korean leaders’ own cognitive and ideological rigidity, their relentless rhetoric and reckless actions about the avowed pursuit of nuclear programs and the continued posture of threat that the North chooses to exercise have impeded a flexible exploration of other avenues of resolution.

One could make a rather persuasive case for the view that no amount of incentives would induce North Korea to jettison its nuclear arsenal. However, there are some indications that the North Korean leadership, including its military, would be prepared to move down the road to abandon its nuclear arsenal and programs if the United States would discard its perceived policy of regime change. This would mean to the North Koreans that the United States would accept the continuation of its Dear Leader and be willing to coexist with an independent DPRK. This proposition is worthy of serious exploration and testing. Should the proposition be falsified, the alternatives could be pursued with a vengeance.

For example, either Mr. Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might declare that while the United States hopes to see a free and democratic government in North Korea, the question of what kind of a political system it should have is a matter for the people of North Korea to decide and that the United States would be ready to begin discussions on normalization as well as other issues.

It is easy to dismiss the wisdom of such an approach on the familiar grounds that have sustained the current U.S. policy, particularly in view of the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1695 on July 15. Yet, such a U.S. government statement would have enormous impact on the perception and thinking of the ruling elite in Pyongyang and could lead to productive exploration of a mutually acceptable settlement of the current dangerous situation.

The logical and likely progression of actions to be undertaken by the United States and its allies under the current policies of the Bush administration will only serve to reinforce the determination of the North Korean leadership to strengthen their WMD capabilities and continue their defiant and bellicose behavior.

However, with a determined pursuit of coercive measures sustained by a credible threat to use force, an offer of a right mix of incentives could bring about compliant behavior by the DPRK. Yet that is precisely what the Bush administration has been reluctant to do.

Towards a path to a negotiated political settlement, the United States must authoritatively clarify its stance on the question of the rights of the DPRK as an independent, sovereign entity, to accept the current regime and to begin discussions on normalization as well as other bilateral issues. In recognition of the significant threat that North Korean nuclear weapons development and delivery systems pose to U.S. security interests, such an approach needs to be pursued urgently.

Young C. Kim is professor emeritus of political science and former director of George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies. He is currently serving as visiting professor at Keio University in Japan.

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