November 3, 2006 | WebMemo on Asia
North Korea has decided to rejoin the six-party nuclear-disarmament talks it walked out of last year. The world should welcome this decision but also recognize that it is only an initial step toward North Korea's denuclearization.
It is important to keep in mind that the six-party talks are a means to an end, which is the complete and verifiable removal of Kim Jong-il's nuclear program. North Korea has made clear through its rhetoric and actions that it wants to keep its nuclear program. To accomplish its goals, North Korea has played one country against another using two strategies: belligerence and negotiation.
The Belligerence Strategy
For the past year, Kim Jong-il has tried belligerence, most notably by testing a long-range Taepodong-II, among other missiles, on July 4 and conducting a nuclear test on October 8. Kim Jong-il likely sought to raise the stakes and damage the six-party coalition. If one or more of America's international partners in the six-party talks (China, South Korea, Japan, or Russia) blinked in response to the tests, he believed he could drive a wedge in the coalition.
His belligerent behavior, however, had the opposite effect and drove the international coalition closer together, further isolating North Korea. Moreover, he also angered his closest, and possibly only, ally-China. Reports indicate that in September, Beijing cut off crude oil sales to North Korea.
The Negotiation Strategy
Kim Jong-il failed at his belligerence strategy and so he now appears ready to return to the bargaining table. His aim in negotiations will be to transform the confrontation from its current state-Kim Jong-il versus an international coalition committed to his country's denuclearization-to one perceived as being between North Korea and the United States.
Kim Jong-il almost succeeded in transforming this standoff into one perceived as being only between the United States and North Korea by insisting on one-on-one talks. The Bush Administration resisted both international and domestic requests to engage in these talks. Now, Kim Jong-il will try to accomplish his goal by claiming the United States is being unreasonable on various issues at the bargaining table.
During negotiations, North Korea will raise contentious issues-such as financial sanctions, the sequencing of benefits for North Korea should it choose to abandon its nuclear program, and the verification procedures that will be put in place once it makes that decision-in the hope of splintering the international coalition.
The issue of financial sanctions provides a good example of how North Korea hopes to implement its negotiating strategy. Financial sanctions are not a part of the nuclear issue. A number of countries-such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and China-have placed financial sanctions on Kim Jong-il because he illegally counterfeits American currency, and likely other currencies. Kim Jong-il has claimed he will consider denuclearization if these financial sanctions are lifted.
In other words, Kim Jong-il wants the world to concede that he has the right to counterfeit foreign currency; only with that concession will he consider giving up his nuclear weapons. Some countries, especially China, see counterfeiting as a minor issue compared to Kim Jong-il's nuclear program. In China's eyes, an American concession on this fundamental issue of national sovereignty would be worthwhile. America, however, should remain firm on this issue and must make clear to the Chinese and all other countries that North Korean illicit activities will not be tolerated. Any perception of weakness in the American resolve on this position could have the harmful consequence of allowing Kim Jong-il to successfully make financial sanctions a wedge issue in the U.S.-China approach to North Korea.
Kim Jong-il has a lot to gain from negotiating. If he denuclearizes, the international community would provide him significant direct financial assistance, which would offset the sources of revenue he has lost due to the crackdown on his illicit activities, namely counterfeiting, narcotrafficing, small arms smuggling and so forth.
Because of his past actions, however, he must prove that he is serious about negotiating with the international community and becoming a responsible national leader. To do so, he needs to take steps such as withdrawing troops from the Demilitarized Zone, standing down missiles, and, most significantly, freezing his nuclear materials and allowing international inspections.
Kim Jong-il's decision to return to the negotiating table proves that with the right amount of pressure, he can be forced to change his strategy. The risk is that the international community will weaken its strong, multi-country approach aimed at forcing him to denuclearize. For the process to be successful, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States must work together to keep the pressure on North Korea.
Michael A. Needham is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.