February 24, 2004

February 24, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Korean Conundrum

Negotiating with North Korea is like banging your head on the wall: It feels so good when you stop.

Well, here we go again. Representatives from the United States, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China and Russia will meet for a second round of Six Party Talks in Beijing tomorrow in another arduous attempt to resolve the Pyongyang nuke problem.

The United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, want a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to all (yes, all) of North Korea's nuclear-weapons programs - as Pyongyang agreed to do under the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Geneva Agreed Framework.

Today, North Korea acknowledges a plutonium-based nuke program located at Yongbyon. In fact, it brags about it, telling a U.S. delegation last month that it has reprocessed 8,000 uranium fuel rods from the facility's reactor into enough plutonium for up to six nuclear weapons. (U.S. intelligence officials aren't sure whether this is boast or bluster.)

Bizarrely, the North still denies the existence of a clandestine, highly enriched uranium (HEU) program. Clearly, nobody told the North Koreans that Pakistan's door-to-door nuclear-weapons salesman, A.Q. Khan, snitched on them a few weeks ago . . .

At an infamous October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang, the Americans confronted the North Koreans on the HEU program - with "he said, she said" results: The U.S. side later said the Koreans had admitted the program's existence - while the North (facing international rebuke) denied it, blaming the translators.

Pyongyang wants energy aid and a nonaggression pact - that is, a U.S. pledge to coexist with the North Korean regime. It also wants to be taken off our list of states that sponsor terrorism. (As long as it's listed, it can't borrow money from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund.)

To these ends, North Korea last month proposed to freeze its nuclear activities. Again! And the offer doesn't include its not-so-covert-anymore HEU operation. (Can't you overlook that other weapons program, just this once? We need some bargaining chips for future booty . . . ) The United States insists that the HEU program be on the table as well.

But despite the prospects of reaching loggerheads over this issue once again, all is not lost. U.S. diplomats may signal a "bold approach" to resolve the nuclear issue - something similar to what is going on with Libya.

Moammar Khaddafy's deal could stand as evidence that a better future is possible for rogue states that come in from the cold: By swearing off weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he'll reap benefits - such as the lifting of U.S. sanctions - likely leading to significant American investment in Libya's flagging oil industry. And he won't wind up hiding in cave, like Osama, or a spider hole, like Saddam.

This should appeal to North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Details of the possible U.S. offer haven't leaked, but it's likely to include economic assistance and the establishment of diplomatic relations in exchange for North Korea's agreement to eliminate WMD, shrink its conventional military, stop selling or trading ballistic-missile know-how and make progress on human rights and political reforms.

A breakthrough is possible, but keep your expectations low. Pyongyang's negotiators have little or no authority to deviate from their well-scripted talking points. And Kim Jong Il may be waiting to see how the presidential elections come out, hoping for a change in administration.

The Libyan model opens the door for a better future for 22 million famine-stricken North Koreans (2 million have already starved to death since 1994), not to mention the prospects for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

But North Korea rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. When do dictators do what is in the best interest of their country or their people?

Best bet: Stand by for more head-banging in the months to come.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in New York Post