March 3, 2009 | Testimony on Asia
Prepared Statement before
Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and the Global Environment
United States House of Representatives
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
The Heritage Foundation
Delivered February 12, 2009
Thank you Mr. Chairman and the distinguished members of the Subcommittee for asking me to testify on "Remaking U.S. Foreign Policy in North Korea." It is indeed a great honor to appear before you. I have a prepared statement which I would like to put into the record. I will summarize some of the key points in my oral remarks, particularly some recommendations for reformulating U.S. policy toward North Korea. The views expressed in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of the Heritage Foundation.
In the dawn of a new year and a new U.S. administration we can again be hopeful of a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear problem. Perceptions that President Obama will take a dramatically different approach toward Pyongyang, including an embrace of direct summit diplomacy, have raised expectations for a near-term breakthrough in the Six Party Talks.
But of all the foreign policy challenges that Barack Obama inherited, North Korea may prove to be the most intractable. Neither the confrontational approach of the first six years of the Bush administration nor the virtually unconditional engagement strategy of the final two Bush years achieved success.
But a U.S. policy that integrates a comprehensive diplomatic approach with accompanying pressure -- derived from enforcing existing multilateral sanctions, activating effective American led efforts like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and demanding compliance with hard fought U.N. Security Council resolutions -- may prove successful, particularly if closely coordinated with our allies South Korea and Japan.
Still, prudence demands that we remember the broken promises and shattered dreams that litter the Korean landscape. Nuclear negotiations are stalemated because North Korea rejects a verification protocol that the Bush administration claimed Pyongyang had previously accepted. And Pyongyang's response--the vitriolic attacks, military threats, and near severing of relations when South Korea and Japan merely demanded conditionality and reciprocity bodes ill for those hoping North Korea will accept future requirements during the Six Party Talks.
While defanging the North Korean nuclear threat remains paramount of U.S. security objectives, the problem must be viewed as embedded in the deeper problem that the regime poses to the international system. What makes the problem so intractable and dangerous is the nature of the regime. Its self-imposed isolation, its horrid human rights record, its easily stirred state of belligerency with South Korea, the massive conventional forces capability it maintains on the DMZ, and its record of missile and nuclear technology proliferation gives important context to the nuclear threat.
North Korea's Nuclear Strategy
Kim Jong-il has shown a great reluctance to make concessions or achieve real progress on diplomatic agreements with the United States or his neighbors. Pyongyang has repeatedly dashed the hopes of those advocating engagement. Perceived movement is habitually followed by threats, cancellations and demands.
Although North Korea welcomed Barack Obama's election, it will await the details of his policies prior to fully revealing its strategy toward the new U.S. administration. North Korea first seeks to attain its goals through formal and informal diplomatic means, manipulating multiple parallel channels of engagement, and playing one opponent off against the other to gain negotiating leverage.
Not content to remain totally silent, however, Pyongyang sent an early signal to the Obama administration. Last month, North Korea asserted that it would only denuclearize following establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and the cessation of Washington's "hostile policy." Pyongyang claims to have weaponized all of its fissile material, providing enough for four to six additional nuclear weapons.
North Korea has stepped up its threats to our ally South Korea, threatening an "all-out confrontation posture to shatter" the South Korean government. It previously warned it would turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and "ashes." Pyongyang has warned of tactical military action, most likely along the western maritime boundary, the site of two deadly clashes between North and South Korean navies in 1999 and 2002.
North Korea has also abrogated all inter-Korean agreements, presumably including the 1991 denuclearization accord in which it pledged not to pursue either a plutonium or uranium-based nuclear accord. Of course, that vow was one of four international agreements that Pyongyang had already violated.
Some analysts will dismiss the North Korean missives as simply "negotiating through headlines." Instead, however, the statements should be interpreted as a shot across the bow of the Obama administration. The rhetoric is consistent with North Korean negotiating tactics of raising the ante, deflecting criticism of its own noncompliance by blaming U.S. actions, insisting on equality of conditions in response to unequal violations, and renegotiating the existing agreement.
On a tactical negotiating level, Pyongyang seeks to undermine the U.S. push for a rigorous verification accord by raising the specter of North Korean inspectors in South Korean and U.S. military facilities as well as on U.S. ships and subs.
On a more strategic level, the North Korean statements send a less than hopeful signal that North Korea will actually adopt a more accommodating stance now that President Bush has left office. Contrary to the terms of the existing Six Party Talks agreement, Pyongyang has now linked new demands over the U.S. "hostile policy" and normalization of relations as a requirement before abiding by its existing commitments.
Split the U.S. from its Asian Allies. North Korea has engaged in an all-out effort to demonize the Lee Myung-bak government, blaming it for the current impasse in inter-Korean relations. President Lee vowed to maintain South Korea's engagement policy but condition economic, humanitarian, and political benefits with concrete progress toward denuclearization and North Korean implementation of political and economic reforms. His policy is more consistent with the Six Party Talks' goal of using coordinated multilateral diplomatic efforts to leverage Pyongyang's implementation of its nuclear commitments.
During ten years of progressive South Korean administrations, Pyongyang was able to dictate the parameters of inter-Korean discussion, receiving economic benefits despite repeated belligerence and lack of progress on political and security issues, effectively de-linking the two. President Roh Moo-hyun abandoned any pretense of requiring North Korea reform and pursued an unconditional outreach to Pyongyang.
Instead, Roh's engagement policy became an end in itself. The process became the justification for maintaining and expanding the program. Roh's policy can be seen as the "Four No's" -- no conditionality; no change in North Korea's political or economic system despite 10 years and $8 billion; no leverage over Pyongyang; and no confidence that additional benefits would lead to reform.
Minimizing Japanese Influence. Successive Japanese leaders have underscored the importance to Pyongyang of resolving uncertainties over the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. Tokyo has conditioned the establishment of formal diplomatic relations as well as providing Japanese assistance in the Six Party Talks on progress on this "abductee" issue. Kim Jong-il admitted North Korea's role in the kidnappings to visiting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, provided some information, and allowed the return of abductee relatives.
North Korea has since balked at demands for additional resolution. In 2008, Pyongyang promised to establish a joint investigation team with Japanese authorities raising hopes for progress but reneged following the election of Taro Aso as prime minister. North Korea now demands Japan be excluded from the Six Party Talks.
Likelihood of Escalating Tensions
If North Korea concludes it is too long ignored or feels it is not achieving its objectives through either the Six Party Talks or direct talks with Washington, it will initiate a carefully calibrated ratcheting up of tensions. Kim Jong-il will be emboldened by perceptions that Washington does not have a military option due to the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ, the overextension of U.S. military forces, and a potential U.S. face-off with Iran.
Potential North Korean options include restarting operations at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor; prohibited actions in the Joint Security Area; extensive out-of-cycle military training exercises near the demilitarized zone or maritime demarcation line in the West Sea; a long-range missile test; or preparations for a second nuclear test. Pyongyang could conduct such actions in conjunction with diplomatic entreaties to gain additional concessions for returning to the status quo.
Media reports suggest that North Korea is currently preparing to test launch a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile. A missile launch, or even observable preparations for such a launch, would be a physical manifestation of Pyongyang's escalating efforts to pressure South Korea and the U.S. to soften their policies toward North Korea.
North Korea's increasingly bellicose campaign is directed primarily at forcing President Lee Myung-bak to abandon requirements for conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency in South Korean engagement with the North. Pyongyang is, however, also concurrently sending a signal to the Obama administration that North Korea will not adopt a more accommodating stance in nuclear negotiations despite the change in U.S. leadership.
Pyongyang may seek to achieve its diplomatic objectives without actually launching a missile and thereby escalating tension beyond a counter-productive level. North Korea knows that activity at its missile test facility is monitored by imagery satellites. Pyongyang would hope that concerns over escalating tensions arising from a missile launch would cause South Korea and the U.S. to weaken negotiating positions as the Bush administration did when North Korea threatened in late 2008 to reprocess plutonium.
If North Korea were to successfully launch a Taepo Dong missile, it would significantly alter the threat environment to the U.S. and its Asian allies. Pyongyang's previous Taepo Dong missile launches in 1998 and 2006 failed and its nuclear test in 2006 was only partially successful. A successful launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead would reverse perceptions of a diminishing North Korean military threat.
Uncertainties Over Kim Jong-il's Health
Questions over the status of Kim Jong-il's health since his stroke in late 2008 overshadow the Six Party Talks. Because North Korea has not announced a formal succession plan, there are concerns that Kim's sudden death or incapacitation could lead to regime instability.
Speculation over a successor centers on Kim's three sons, his brother-in-law Chang Song-taek, or a collective leadership. Regardless of who is chosen, the new leader would pursue the same policies. It is unlikely that there would be any significant change in North Korean resistance to implementing economic and political reform nor in more openly engaging the outside world. Nor would it be likely that Pyongyang would be any less obstructionist in the Six Party Talks.
The new leader, lacking the inherent legitimacy of Kim Jong-il or his father Kim Il-song, would be heavily dependent on senior party and military officials who are overwhelmingly nationalist and resistant to change. The leadership elite see its fate as directly tied to a continuation of the present regime. They would resist any attempt to alter policy as risking instability and threatening their way of life. The new leader may even have to pursue an even more hardline policy to ensure continued internal support.
There is little evidence of a "reformer faction" that advocates bold economic reform, opening the country to outside influence, reducing the regime's bellicose rhetoric and brinksmanship tactics, or abandoning its nuclear weapons programs. North Korea has perpetuated the image of factional in-fighting between 'engagers" and "hardliners" as a negotiating tool to elicit additional benefits.
Establishing an Obama Approach to North Korea
President Obama has asserted the need for "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" with North Korea. He pledged to be "firm and unyielding in our commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula," and vowed not to "take the military option off the table" in order to achieve "the complete and verifiable elimination of all of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, as well as its past proliferation activities, including with Syria."
He stated that "sanctions are a critical part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should only be lifted based on performance. If the North Koreans do not meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." It is interesting to note that his administration's first official act toward North Korea was imposing sanctions on three North Korean companies for violating U.S. law aimed at curtailing the proliferation of technology related to missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
Although there will be a perception of a major shift in U.S. policy, President Obama will likely maintain the largely unconditional engagement strategy of the final two years of the Bush administration. Although President Obama may be more willing than President Bush to engage in senior-level diplomatic engagement, including a potential summit with Kim Jong-il, it is unlikely that such tactical changes will achieve verifiable North Korean denuclearization. However direct he makes his policy, Obama will face the same constraints in achieving tangible progress with North Korea as did his predecessors.
During the past two years, the Bush administration engaged in the direct, bilateral diplomacy with Pyongyang that Obama advocates. Yet there has been continued North Korean intransigence, non-compliance, and brinksmanship. The Bush strategy of engagement also resulted in the abandonment of important principles, including enforcement of international law and attaining sufficient verification measures. Nor have diplomats yet begun the real negotiations to discuss the actual elimination of nuclear weapons three years after Pyongyang agreed to do so.
Establishing Full Verification
Creating a sufficiently rigorous verification system is critically important to any arms control agreement, particularly if the other party has been shown to have violated its previous commitments. Verification serves several roles, including deterrence, detection, and confidence building.
A proper verification regime would be a key test of the sincerity of Pyongyang's pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons as well as the best defense against North Korea violating yet another international nuclear agreement. The U.S. simply cannot allow North Korea to play a nationwide nuclear version of whack-a-mole or three-card monty.
U.S. national technical means, including imagery satellites, are useful, but they are no substitute for on-site inspections. Classified collection systems can alert us to suspicious activity, but suspicions can be conclusively resolved only by inspectors on the ground. An effective verification regime must include details such as the number of short-notice challenge inspections of non-declared sites, the technical inspection equipment allowed, and a requirement that inspectors be transported expeditiously to desired sites.
During the campaign, Senator Obama stated that a strict verification protocol was an absolute prerequisite for removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, as well as for making further progress in the nuclear negotiations. He called for "a clear understanding that if North Korea fails to follow through there will be immediate consequences." Specifically, "If North Korea refuses to permit robust verification, we should lead all members of the Six Party talks in suspending energy assistance, re-imposing sanctions that have recently been waived, and considering new restrictions."
North Korea demanded its removal from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list both as a quid pro quo for its agreement to a verification protocol as well to "improve the atmosphere" of negotiations and stimulate further progress. The U.S. abandoned its previous insistence that North Korea accept international standards of verification, particularly short-notice challenge inspections of suspect sites. Such inspections are part of the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards that U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 directed Pyongyang should abide by. Indeed, North Korea agreed in September 2005 to return "at an early date' to the IAEA safeguards.
It is now abundantly clear that North Korea did not abide by what the Bush administration claimed it had agreed to. Pyongyang provided a "complete and correct" declaration that was neither and then the U.S. was willing to agree to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement accord that was none of the above.
Washington's premature removal of North Korea from the terrorist list was a case of naively trading a tangible benefit for an intangible promise. As a result, the U.S. angered key allies Japan and South Korea, who now see the U.S. as unwilling to consider their security concerns.
In particular, Tokyo felt betrayed by the Bush Administration's breaking its pledge to keep North Korea on the terrorist list until progress was achieved on the abductee issue. National Security Council Senior Asia Director Dennis Wilder clearly stated in April 2007, "We aren't going to delink the abductee issue from the state sponsor of terrorism issue" and underscored that President Bush would personally reaffirm that position to then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is noteworthy that Libya was required to acknowledge and make restitution for its involvement in the Lockerbie terrorist act.
Tokyo has now lost considerable leverage in its attempts to get North Korea to live up to its commitment to reopen the kidnapping investigations. The verification agreement also undermined South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's attempts to impose conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency on Seoul's previously unrestricted economic largesse to North Korea. Pyongyang was emboldened to continue its brinksmanship strategy and bombastic rhetoric toward Seoul, including recent threats to sever all relations and turn South Korea into "debris."
Requirements for a sufficient verification protocol include:
Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past
As President Obama contemplates the Sisyphean task of making real progress in North Korean denuclearization, he should look to history for guidance. And history clearly advises what he should avoid. Specifically, he should not:
What Should Be Done
President Obama and Congress should emphasize that the U.S. seeks to use diplomacy to achieve North Korean denuclearization, but not at the cost of abandoned principles or dangerously insufficient compliance. Specifically, the U.S. should:
It is not a question of whether the U.S. should engage North Korea, rather it is a matter of how to do so. The Bush Administration engaged North Korea for several years through the Six Party talks. It is critical to emphasize that engagement is a means rather than an ends and it is equally important to control the ways in which it is applied.
While there is a plausible path to reach a diplomatic solution, the Obama administration should also accept that ultimately there may not be a magical combination of inducements that ensures North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons. There is a growing sense that Pyongyang's obstructionist antics are not merely negotiating ploys but are instead designed to achieve international acquiescence to North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korean officials have repeatedly indicated that is their intention.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I am happy to answer your questions.
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