Why Bush Must Talk to Pyongyang

Military force isn't an option against North Korea's brutal, paranoid regime. That means diplomacy is the only hope for progress

By Stan Crock

To some long-time Asia hands, North Korea is at a critical juncture. Its belligerent admission that a new nuclear weapons program is under way comes just months after a decision to approve a freewheeling capitalist enterprise zone on the border with China. "This regime is straddling its benighted past with moves toward what it hopes will be a sustainable future," says Richard H. Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former top Asia policymaker at the State Dept.

The question now: Will the Bush Administration help Pyongyang jump over the fence and into a new era? Before Washington can move, though, it has to answer several critical questions.

Is the Bush Administration willing to assure Pyongyang that it won't attack? This should be a no-brainer since the U.S. won't use preemption here. The North has thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, and its ballistic missiles can reach Japan. North Korea's Kim Jong Il would lose any conflict, but the devastation would be horrendous. Unlike Iraq, there is no military option with this member of the Axis of Evil.


  So what's the hangup? It turns out the Clinton Administration declared that it had no hostile intentions toward the North. And the Bush team is, shall we say, reluctant to do anything the Clintonites did.

Such a statement is critical. While the Bush Administration gloats that its hardball line prompted the acknowledgement of the weapons program, the fact is tough talk will make resolution of the situation harder. Harsh rhetoric about the North has been a staple of the Bush tenure almost since the beginning. Not long after his inauguration, the President said he didn't trust the North Koreans. That's a justifiable sentiment, but its bluntness, combined with inclusion of the North in the Axis of Evil and the constant talk about preemption only cements Pyongyang's determination to cling to its weapons drive.

"If I were sitting in Pyongyang, why would I not think I'm next after Iraq?" asks an Administration official. A critical part of any strategy to persuade the North to give up its program is to allay fears that the U.S. will attack.


  Will the Bush Administration legitimize the North Korean government? Plagued by an inferiority complex, Pyongyang would like a statement from Washington that it respects the North's social system and way of life. That's not going to happen. But sitting down with the country's officials would provide some recognition. What's more, it may be possible to finesse any declaration. The U.S. could simply say it likes the changes the regime is adopting and will do everything it can to encourage the trend.

Will the Administration preserve the 1994 Agreed Framework? Under the terms of that deal, the North abandoned its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel and two light-water nuclear reactors. Robert L. Galucci, who negotiated the framework for the Clinton Administration, notes that the new nukes program based on enriched uranium is overshadowing the fact that the framework worked. The plutonium program is dead. Seoul and Tokyo want to keep the Agreed Framework intact to keep make sure the program stays dead. If the framework were nullified, the North would have carte blanche to use its spent plutonium fuel rods for weapons.

Some Washington officials would like to kill the deal, though. They prefer that the North use conventional power, rather than nuclear power. And they want the spent fuel rods sent out of the country now, rather than when the nuclear plants are delivered, as the Agreed Framework schedule requires. With resistance from Pyongyang, Seoul, and Tokyo, however, the Administration should accept yet another Clinton Administration initiative.


  What the Bush team should do and what it will do might not be the same. "It's not clear the Administration can reach a consensus on the substantive things we'd be prepared to offer," frets the Administration official. That's hardly a surprise given the divisions that have wracked the Bush crew on everything from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to U.N. involvement on Iraq. But something else is at work that makes this issue particularly dicey: the North Koreans themselves. "There is no good answer to Korea," the official says. "As long as these guys are around, they're trouble."

That's precisely the issue. If the regime is truly in the midst of change, as Solomon contends, Washington should do everything if can to legitimize that process. That means dealing with the North, instead of stiffing it, as has been the Administration's practice. It means rolling up their sleeves and embarking on the difficult slog of diplomatic work with an obdurate, untrustworthy negotiating partner. If the Administration doesn't do "negotiations" with the likes of North Korea, then call them "talks" or "discussions" or "pixels" or "bananas."

Call them whatever you want, just do them.

Sure, the North has shown that it will cheat and lie. Its confession confirms every reservation hardliners have had about arms control and weapons inspections. But there's no military option. And the Agreed Framework did achieve its goal. With no alternative, the Bush team needs to gulp hard, negotiate further arms curbs, and hope they hold until real change finally comes to Pyongyang.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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