April 3, 2003

April 3, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

How to Deal With Pyongyang

The United States is currently leading a multinational coalition to disarm Iraq. In much the same way, it must bring other regional nations to the table when it sits down for negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear-weapons programmes. So far, the Bush administration is sticking with that principled policy--avoiding direct negotiations with Pyongyang and instead seeking a multi-nation, or "multilateral," diplomatic solution to the North Korean problem.

Unfortunately, some, including influential politicians in the U.S., want the administration to reverse course and open immediate, direct talks with the North Koreans. But although some sort of U.S.-North Korean talks--not formal negotiations--may be necessary to decrease tensions and prevent North Korean miscalculation in the short run, there are three solid reasons not to rush headlong into "bilateral" negotiations with North Korea.

First, it would leave the impression the U.S. can be bullied or cowed by North Korean brinksmanship or blackmail. Pyongyang understands and respects raw power and will do anything to exploit weakness. Caving to North Korean demands up front will undermine any long-term solution. Historically, North Korea has used provocative acts to force negotiations, garner attention or blackmail opponents. This includes such outrageous acts as attempting to assassinate South Korean presidents, seizing the USS Pueblo in 1968 and shooting down an American EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War. Yielding to Pyongyang's demands under these circumstances is a clear moral hazard and only encourages this reprehensible behaviour as a negotiating tactic in the future.

Next, Pyongyang's nuclear breakout is a regional issue, not a bilateral one. North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons would deeply affect the interests of China, Japan, Russia and South Korea--not just America. All those nations must help resolve this issue. Russia and China historically have exercised a great deal of influence with the North Korean regime. In a multilateral framework, Moscow and Beijing could potentially act as "honest brokers" and advise Pyongyang that its actions are counterproductive and will lead only to greater international isolation and perhaps regime collapse. Indeed, the only advice the North may heed will likely be from Russia or China.

Furthermore, once an accord addressing North Korea's nuclear problem is inked, the U.S. will need other regional nations to verify that Pyongyang is complying. The well-intentioned bilateral efforts under the 1994 Agreed Framework failed for a host of reasons, but mostly because it was impossible to ensure North Korea was complying with the accord. Russia and China could play a constructive role here as well.

Referring North Korea's violations to the United Nations Security Council was the right first step. Now, the Security Council should call upon North Korea to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, stop its activities at its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and dismantle its clandestine highly enriched uranium nuclear-weapons programme. If North Korea continues to seek nuclear weapons, the United Nations also could consider more muscular options, such as sanctions under Article VII of the UN charter. But again, sanctions don't work without multilateral enforcement.

The third reason for avoiding direct bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang is because it would isolate Seoul from the process. And South Korea must play a central role in addressing the North Korean challenge, as this is first and foremost a Korean issue. The road to reunification goes through Seoul--even though Pyongyang believes the road to regime survival is through Washington. Seoul, in close cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, should spearhead efforts with Pyongyang. Regrettably, North Korea clearly prefers division and regime survival to the unification of the Korean people.

After the Iraqi situation is resolved, the Bush administration will be able to focus even more attention on the longer-term problems posed by North Korea. It will take time and regional cooperation to address the security issues on the Korean peninsula. That's why George W. Bush is right to develop a multilateral diplomatic framework. The only effective way to peacefully--and permanently--end North Korea's dangerous game of brinksmanship, opportunism and extortion is to meet it with a united, multilateral diplomatic front.


-Peter Brookes is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific affairs. He is now director of the Asian Studies Centre at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the Far East Economic Review