What We Talk About When We Talk About North Korea

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North Korea's spent nuclear fuel rods kept in a cooling pond at the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon

Getting North Korea to agree to six-way talks on its nuclear program — as opposed to the one-on-one with Washington demanded by Pyongyang — was a small victory for U.S. diplomacy. But as the August 27 meeting in Beijing draws near, anxiety is growing over what will transpire there. The Bush Administration insists that North Korea not be offered concessions to reward nuclear blackmail, and the presence of China, Russia, South Korea and Japan will certainly add to the pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program and submit to a tough inspection and verification regime. At the same time all four countries expect Washington to assuage North Korean concerns, particularly through offering Pyongyang security guarantees — in other words, to get a deal on nuclear weapons, the Bush Administration will have to swear an oath to refrain from pursuing the overthrow of the regime of Kim Jong Il. But guaranteeing the security of a charter member of President Bush's "Axis of Evil" sticks in the craw of many in the Administration.

Two weeks ago Undersecretary of State for Non Proliferation John Bolton issued a blistering attack on North Korea's leader, calling him a "tyrannical dictator" who has subjected his people to a "hellish nightmare." Administration officials defended Bolton's remarks even after the North Koreans responded with some vicious verbal salvos of their own and threatened to boycott the Beijing talks if Bolton was a delegate. Still, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced Tuesday that Bolton would not, in fact, be sent to the talks. The last thing Washington wants to do is give the notoriously fickle North Koreans a pretext for staying away.

But the Bolton case illustrates the schizophrenia of U.S. policy towards North Korea. Ever since it first assumed office, the Bush administration has been divided over how to deal with the regime of Kim Jong Il. In February 2001 Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress that the new administration would continue the dialogue with Pyongyang begun by the Clinton team, but was quickly rebuked by President Bush's skepticism that North Korea could be trusted to keep its agreements. North Korea justified that skepticism late the following year by admitting that it had been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program in violation of its 1994 agreement with Japan, South Korea and the U.S. But even as Pyongyang has flaunted its nuclear ambitions with increasing belligerence, the Administration's policy for responding to the threat has remained unclear.

There's little dispute among U.S. and allied intelligence over the extent or imminence of the treat. North Korea is currently believed to have the materials and the capability to assemble up to six nuclear weapons within a few months, and left undeterred it could build a lot more over the next decade. Besides the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea triggering a regional arms race and destabilizing much of Asia, Pyongyang's basket-case economy has made it almost heavily reliant for foreign exchange on the sale of missiles and other weapons systems. The fear that North Korea might eventually sell nuclear weapons to rogue regimes or terrorists is at the center of Washington's concerns.

"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," President Bush told West Point cadets last summer. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge." Still, there is no good option on North Korea. The U.S. military predicts that 1 million people could be killed in the first month of a war, most of them South Korean civilians. Pinpoint strikes on the North's nuclear facilities are difficult to envision, since some of the known facilities are in hardened installations buried deep inside the mountains, while North Korea's clandestine nuclear program suggests it may have facilities of which the U.S. is currently unaware. Pinpoint strikes require pinpoint intelligence, and on North Korea the intelligence tends to be murky. Even Administration hawks who favor regime change in North Korea tend to emphasize sanctions and blockades, rather than military assault. But there's little support for regime change even by the tactics of slow strangulation among the key regional players — South Korea, Japan and China — who fear that North Korea wold retaliate by starting a war. And while Tokyo is more inclined to back a harder negotiating position from Washington, Seoul and Beijing fear that a protracted standoff will see North Korea take irreversible steps towards nuclear-armed status.

The preferred solution among the four additional parties attending the Beijing talks is a comprehensive deal that guarantees the dismantling of the North's nuclear program in exchange for guarantees that North Korea won't be attacked by the U.S. Pyongyang is insisting that this come in the form of a formal non-aggression pact with Washington, but that's a non-starter for the Bush Administration, not least because it would require Senate ratification. Instead, the U.S. may offer some written guarantee that falls short of treaty status, and indications from Moscow are that Russia and China may be willing to offer extra security guarantees to persuade Pyongyang to sign. Recognizing the difficulty of bridging the ocean of mistrust between the U.S. and North Korea, China, Russia and South Korea are pressing for an immediate temporary freeze on the nuke program in exchange for a short-term security guarantee, while negotiations then continue over a "simultaneous and phased" program of dismantling, inspections and concessions — a "roadmap" to North Korean disarmament in exchange for recognition and aid.

But the question of what exactly the U.S. will offer North Korea is not yet settled in Washington. Hawks are reluctant to see the U.S. promise to leave Kim's regime intact, and are able to point to North Korea's systematic violation of its previous agreement to refrain from going nuclear to question the validity of pursuing a new deal. They also suspect North Korea will use a protracted negotiation process to buy time to complete its nuclear program.

Before it revealed its clandestine program in violation of the 1994 agreement, North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship has been viewed by many in Washington and Seoul as a form of extortion designed to shore up an economy in free-fall. But some U.S. officials now suspect that Kim Jong-il may have concluded that a nuclear deterrent is the key to his survival — a belief reinforced by the fate of Saddam Hussein — and that he's rushing headlong to attain nuclear status regardless of what transpires in negotiations. After all, the nations talking to North Korea to prevent it going nuclear are unlikely to shun Pyongyang once it demonstrates nuclear capability. The examples of Israel, India and Pakistan demonstrate that nuclear capability ensures respect even from the most hostile of neighbors.

The prospects for success at the Beijing talks will hinge largely on the work of the hosts. China, as the supplier of 70 percent of North Korea's energy and one third of its food, is the only outside power with significant leverage over Pyongyang. But Beijing is lowering expectations. China's President Hu Jintao said earlier this week that the meeting in Beijing would be "just a beginning." And that may be precisely what concerns those who fear North Korea is simply playing for time while building its bomb.