February 25, 2004

February 25, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Don't Make Concessions To North Korea

The U.S. has a simple task ahead as a second round of talks on North Korea's nuclear program gets underway in Beijing today. The Bush administration must remain firm in its stated stance that nothing less than "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantlement of all of the North's nuclear programs will be acceptable. To do otherwise at this juncture is to risk future perils by postponing the inevitable: a nuclear Korean peninsula and instability in Northeast Asia.

Though a complete resolution is extremely unlikely during the round that starts today, the meetings will nevertheless reaffirm a tenuous but growing regional consensus among the other nations that take part -- China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- that North Korea must take action to dismantle its program. China and South Korea remain unconvinced of some important issues. The message to them should be that the future of these "Six Party" talks as a forum for discussions with North Korea depends on Beijing and Seoul not allowing Pyongyang to drive a wedge among the other five.

The current standoff began in October 2002, when North Korea admitted to U.S. officials that it was pursuing a highly enriched uranium program in violation of several international agreements, including the 1994 Agreed Framework signed with the Clinton administration. When the United States suspended fuel oil shipments to North Korea because Pyongyang had violated the Agreed Framework, North Korea responded by ejecting U.N. inspectors from its plutonium facility in Yongbyon. It then, for good measure, restarted its reactors and declared its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

North Korea's position is that its nuclear arms programs are a defensive response to hostility shown by the Bush administration. The communist regime therefore demands security guarantees in addition to diplomatic recognition from the United States before it begins to dismantle its program. But Pyongyang's claims are spurious. North Korea's nuclear programs go back to the 1990s, well before George W. Bush became president. Moreover, North Korea already possesses a successful deterrent against potential U.S. military action: its conventional forces, which include a million-man army arrayed at the border with South Korea and which is capable of destroying Seoul.

Disagreement over who does what first was at the heart of the discussions during the first round of talks last September. This week's meetings will likely focus on questions about North Korea's separate program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. In a complete reversal of its admission in October 2002, Pyongyang has since vehemently denied the existence of a uranium program. Nevertheless, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton made it clear last week that the North would have to fess up about its uranium program, as it has about the plutonium one, and agree to verifiably dismantle both. North Korea's continued denial of a uranium program will only damage the possibility of continuing future negotiations.

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's recent confessions that he sold North Korea the technology to enrich uranium has strengthened Washington's position, and will put paid to questions about U.S. intelligence capabilities. Skepticism among the other four parties -- particularly China and South Korea -- about the uranium programs will likely embolden North Korea, which has a pattern of capitalizing on uncertainty by driving wedges among allies.

Given these challenges, during the talks in Beijing the United States should make clear that the uranium issue is not solely bilateral. Although the plutonium program is generally considered a more immediate threat than a uranium one, North Korea's pursuit of both programs seriously jeopardizes security in the region and the global non-proliferation regime.

China and South Korea worry that U.S. insistence on including the uranium program in this round of talks may be unacceptable to North Korea and cause a rupture in the talks. But the United States must not relent on inclusion of this issue. To do so would give North Korea a diplomatic and strategic victory, and reduce the Six-Party format to nothing more than a hollow forum for diplomatic niceties. Postponing the identification of all the issues of contention with North Korea only guarantees that it will pose an even greater challenge in the future.

Thus, a North Korean "freeze" of the Yongbyon facility will be inadequate, and the United States should not accept it even as a temporary measure, let alone make concessions. To do so would seriously undermine the principled U.S. stand on global non-proliferation, and would allow North Korea to revert to its old pattern of extorting concessions from the international community. Any freeze by Pyongyang is a necessary but insufficient condition for the permanent goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

The primary goal of the next round of Six-Party talks in Beijing should be to keep alive this existing mechanism of dialogue, but if and only if it can become a forum for identifying the real source of threat to international security and stability: North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Though we're unlikely to see major breakthroughs this time, Libya's recent decision to give up its weapons programs shows that earnest and concerted diplomacy can yield success. Verification of North Korea's nuclear dismantlement will be the next great challenge, hopefully to be addressed at future talks. For now, this week's talks should aim to guarantee that North Korea will address all its nuclear programs and nothing less.

Ms. Hwang is the policy analyst for Northeast Asia at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.


About the Author

Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the The Asian Wall Street Journal