November 29, 2004

November 29, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Post-APEC Understandings on North Korea

On November 12, in Los Angeles, California, President Roh Moo-hyun made a speech urging the United States to moderate its position with regard to North Korea. Last weekend, in Santiago, Chile, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative (APEC) meeting, President Roh and President George W. Bush were able to agree on an agenda to address North Korean nuclear ambitions.

While in Santiago, in addition to meeting President Roh, President Bush had bilateral meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. There seems to be a consensus that the partners in the Six-Party talks with North Korea would be united in seeking an end to Pyongyang's nuclear program. And perhaps President Roh came away understanding that there is a difference between patience and firmness on the nuclear issue and a "hard line."

 

It is important to understand that there are limits to the willingness of the United States government in reaching an agreement with North Korea on an aid package. President Bush has said on several occasions that he has no intention of attacking North Korea. The United States has aligned itself with China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia in a united effort. As President Bush put it in Santiago, "the message is clear: 'Mr. Kim Jong Il, get rid of your nuclear weapons program.'" Indeed, if Pyongyang can work with the other regional powers, it will find itself getting help from its five negotiating partners as well as European and Latin American countries.

 

Still, at times there are differences in approach between President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush. In the November 12 speech in Los Angeles, President Roh urged the United States not to take a harder line against North Korea. From the standpoint of the United States, however, a policy insisting that aid will be forthcoming only when there is a verifiable end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program is not a hard line, it is realistic. And there are no threats coming from Washington, only a patient approach that waits for Kim Jong Il to enter into serious negotiations.

 

Consider the American point of view, and that of Japan. Years of inducements to North Korea in the form of food aid, fuel oil, financial assistance, development projects like the Kumgang Mountain Project, and the construction of road and rail links have not led Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear weapons program. Indeed, while part of the KEDO process, Pyongyang developed a secret highly enriched uranium program to build nuclear weapons. And bilateral discussions between North Korea and other countries, including Russia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea, went nowhere.

 

By the last year of the first Bush Administration a fresh deal was put on the table using a regional approachthe Six Party Talks. And President Bush said a number of times that he wants a peaceful, negotiated settlement with North Korea. Furthermore, unlike the way negotiations went with the North in 1993, China is now part of the process. Beijing realizes that its own security interests require that North Korea ends its nuclear-weapons program. Otherwise China could face a Japan that seeks a stronger military armed with its own nuclear weapons, something that makes Beijing uncomfortable.

 

Mr. Kim Jong Il knows that a package of aid is on the table with security guarantees. If he also insists that the United States sign some form of "non-aggression pact," negotiations will go nowhere. The United States has never signed such a pact in its history. President Bush has said a number of times that he has no intention of initiating force against North Korea. And Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, speaking in Japan, told Japanese officials that any security promises between the United States and North Korea will not affect the American commitment to defend Japan or "in any way undermine our (the U.S.'s) agreement with Japan." Thus, Mr. Kim, in Pyongyang, knows that the outlines of some security guarantees are on the table. The key to any negotiation, however, will be the ability of the partners to verify that Pyongyang has given up its nuclear arms program.

 

On Monday, November 22, while speaking in Honolulu on the way home from Chile, President Roh urged North Korea to show sincerity in its dealings at the Six-Party Talks. It seems, therefore, that Presidents' Roh and Bush came to a meeting of the minds in Santiago.

 

Negotiations with North Korea will still be slow. And I doubt that there will be movement before the American Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2005. Even then, a new foreign policy team must be confirmed by the United States Senate. But there is strong continuity of policy between the first four years of the Bush Administration and his second term. In the American Congress, there is firm resolve that no payments or "inducements" go to North Korea without the ability to verify the end of North Korea's nuclear program. This is reality in American politics, and it seems that all parties left Chile with this understanding.

Larry M. Wortzel is vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Appeared on South Korea's Chosun Ilbo