October 4, 2004

October 4, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Giving In to Nuclear Blackmail

Last week, all eyes, including those of Kim Jong Il and his cohorts in Pyongyang, were focused on Florida, where the first debate between the two candidates for U.S. president took place. Kim, unlike the vast majority of the citizens of North Korea, has access to international media. Which is good for him, as he received good news. He is likely to have reacted to Senator John Kerry's declaration that if elected he would pursue direct and immediate bilateral talks with Kim's regime with glee and anticipation.

But pursuit of direct bilateral talks with Pyongyang, something the Bush administration has steadfastly refused, is not only the wrong approach, but also one that's dangerous and has grave negative consequences.

Last year, the United States, joined by China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, embarked upon a multilateral path -- the so-called Six-Party Talks -- to bring North Korea to the table in order to place diplomatic pressure on that country to abandon its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The talks, which were supposed to resume in late September, are now stalled. The North Korean government has shown itself to be reluctant to meet prior to the U.S. presidential elections in November. Apparently it has good reason, given that Sen. Kerry has played right into North Korea's hands.

Critics, including Sen. Kerry, argue that the Bush administration has wasted time by choosing the more complex and challenging path of a multilateral approach with Pyongyang, rather than simply engaging in direct talks. But President George W. Bush has rejected the deceptively simpler approach for several irreproachable reasons.

Eleven years ago, North Korea demanded a range of goodies from the United States by rattling its nuclear saber, and received them when the U.S. signed the so-called Agreed Framework. The Clinton administration took it upon itself to reach a negotiated settlement with Pyongyang, and America shouldered the mantle of attempting to enforce nonproliferation upon an unwilling "partner." For its efforts, the United States received a limited, and ultimately unsuccessful suspension of part of North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea later reneged on the deal.

Today, Washington faces the same reluctant and defiant Pyongyang, but this time it is backed by the firm presence of North Korea's four neighbors carrying the unified message that North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons, completely, verifiably and irreversibly.

Experience has taught us that North Korea will not do so willingly, or readily. Pyongyang has already declared a list of demands from the United States before it will consider giving up its nuclear development: an end to "hostile" American attitudes; a formal security guarantee; withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula; and diplomatic recognition, among other demands. Washington, however, has remained unswerving in refusing to succumb to nuclear "blackmail" and has instead focused on building a coalition against North Korean ultimatums.

Such a multilateral coalition, comprised of both North Korea's traditional enemies and allies, is critical to any permanent resolution to the nuclear issue. Without active regional support, Washington's demands for a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to Pyongyang's nuclear programs, will likely fail. The only hope of persuading North Korea to choose a non-nuclear future is if no single regional player is willing to accept such a reality.

Another reason why the bilateral approach with North Korea will certainly fail is that the United States has little direct leverage over North Korea. North Korea's inclusion on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism prohibits any American economic or commercial activities in North Korea. And even without the formal ban, it is unlikely that any profit-minded American business would willingly enter the North Korean "market," given its status as one of the most closed in the world. The United States continues to be one of the largest donors of official food aid to North Korea -- food aid amounted to more than $26 million in 2004 alone -- but Washington has long followed a policy of not using humanitarian aid as a political tool.

China and South Korea have the most direct influence over Pyongyang: the former through its historical alliance and decades of unofficial financial and material support, and the latter with vastly increased levels of trade and cash payments. Arguably, Russia and Japan also have more leverage over Pyongyang than Washington, witnessed by North Korea's admission in 2002 to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that, yes, it has kidnapped Japanese citizens. This was ostensibly a wild gamble by Kim Jong Il to gain desperately needed economic assistance and diplomatic recognition from Japan.

Washington does possess one very valuable "carrot" vis-à-vis North Korea: the potential for diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, which should be the focus of bilateral talks. But it would be foolish to even consider squandering away this carrot now, when North Korea has done nothing but make threats. Washington should hold on to this valuable tool until North Korea has shown its willingness to be a responsible and trustworthy negotiating partner, not use it as inducement to merely show up at the table.

Finally, the pursuit of bilateral talks with North Korea will harm the ability of the United States to achieve other outstanding issues with that country. In addition to that country's illicit pursuit of nuclear programs, which violates at least four international and bilateral agreements, North Korea remains an ever-imposing threat based on the fact that it continues to build up its military; despite mass starvation at home. It also has a record of state-sponsored terrorism, and a continued hostile stance toward South Korea. Its continued brutality toward its own people through wide-spread human rights violations is well known, as is its involvement in international drug and human trafficking. These threats require strong and unified action by North Korea's neighbors, if not the entire international community, which is why a multilateral and not a bilateral approach is necessary.

Thus, the United States should not consider altering its current multilateral approach toward North Korea. Anything else will provide North Korea with a strategic and diplomatic victory, and will likely embolden Pyongyang, which has a well-established pattern of capitalizing on differences among allies. The United States acting alone cannot terminate North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which are the real source of threat to international security and stability. It must work with its partners in the region to find a permanent solution.

Ms. Hwang is the Northeast Asia policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the The Asian Wall Street Journal