Tue, 25 Feb 2003

Washington needs road map to peace in North Korea

Larry A. Niksch, Specialist in Asian Affairs, U.S. Congressional Research Service, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

While the drumbeat for war with Iraq gets louder, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has embarked on a trip to East Asia in order to avoid another war. His challenge is not just to walk North Korea back into nuclear compliance but to win the support of the countries he will be visiting -- Japan, China and South Korea -- for a common strategy of a multilateral talk.

However, in order to succeed in forming a diplomatic coalition that could rein in North Korea, Washington needs to spell out its objectives and lay a clear roadmap to achieving them.

Ever since October last year, when North Korea admitted to running a secret uranium enrichment program designed to make nuclear bombs, the U.S. has tried to get other governments to put pressure on Pyongyang. The U.S. frustration about not succeeding in this effort has only grown with successive North Korean violations of its many non-proliferation commitments.

The Bush administration's unhappiness surfaced in early February when the Washington Post quoted President Bush as saying that the United States, China, and Russia "have responsibilities, joint responsibilities" in dealing with North Korea's expanding nuclear program.

Other reports quoted Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy Richard Armitage, and other administration officials in voicing frustration that China, Russia, and South Korea were not fully supporting the United States in placing concerted pressure on North Korea.

The frustration was not sudden. Washington's strategy since October 2002 has been to persuade other governments to intensify pressure on North Korea to end its secret uranium enrichment program, shut down the reopened Yongbyon installations, rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and place its entire nuclear program under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspections; in short, to comply with at least four nuclear agreements which Pyongyang has broken.

U.S. entreaties to other governments suggested a resort to economic sanctions if North Korea did not comply. The strategy became one of reliance on these governments to bear the diplomatic initiative as Washington stressed its unwillingness to negotiate with North Korea over the nuclear issue.

The frustration came as other governments reacted negatively to Bush administration entreaties. They endorsed the general U.S. goal of a non-nuclear North Korea. However, after each North Korean provocative nuclear move, those governments increased criticism of the Bush administration more than they criticized North Korea.

They criticized the cutoff of oil shipments to North Korea under the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework. They voiced exception to the administration's talk of economic sanctions. They expressed alarm at the scenario of U.S. military action against North Korea. China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan all called on the U.S. to negotiate directly with North Korea.

Washington's frustration has led it to increase pressure on China and Russia to endorse U.S. strategy, insist strongly on a multilateral diplomatic framework, and push for formal UN Security Council consideration of North Korea's actions.

It also is suggesting a negotiating forum under UN auspices, dubbed "five plus five" to include the five permanent Security Council members plus five other nations, including Japan and South Korea.

The U.S. again faces major difficulty in getting the cooperation of the other key governments. China, Russia, and South Korea oppose a Security Council meeting and are skeptical of the five plus five formula. Meanwhile, divisions between the Bush administration and other governments over Iraq undoubtedly complicate the administration's efforts to secure support on North Korea.

Time for diplomacy, in fact, may be short. An American war with Iraq likely will lower the intensity of diplomacy on North Korea. The much discussed danger is that North Korea will take advantage of Washington's pre-occupation with Iraq to reprocess spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium, produce up five or six atomic bombs, proclaim itself an open nuclear weapons state, and be in a position to proliferate nuclear weapons or materials to other states or even to terrorist groups.

A North Korean decision to start reprocessing would confront the Bush administration with a fundamental decision: Whether to stop reprocessing by bombing Yongbyon or allow North Korea to complete a "nuclear breakout." The first option runs a high risk of igniting another Korean war; but the second option would be perceived abroad and in the U.S. as a major foreign policy defeat for the U.S., which would overshadow any military victory over Iraq.

The administration's frustration over the stalemate in its multilateral strategy and its recent statements that all U.S. options are open suggest that the administration is aware of the potential magnitude of the situation. However, expressing frustration and blame will not be enough to move the multilateral strategy forward.

For the U.S. to be able to increase its influence on other governments, it will have to understand the reasons for these governments' criticism of U.S. policy and adjust U.S. strategy, if not in terms of objectives, then certainly in terms of tactics.

China, Russia, and South Korea have their own special interests in their policies toward North Korea. The U.S. cannot change these, but it can address other factors that influence these governments to distance themselves from U.S. policy.

One such factor is the view in other capitals that U.S. policy since President Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement has helped to bring about the present crisis. This view holds that American threats, warnings, and demands for sweeping unilateral North Korean military concessions have produced North Korean fears of a U.S. attack and its moves since October 2002 to deter the Bush administration.

They see the tough rhetoric of the Bush administration as only masking a weak and inert policy which is result of factionalism among policy makers. They are loath to deal with North Korea not only because of the fear of losing out. They consider it as almost immoral to negotiate with such a vile regime and are unwilling to offer North Korea any kind of U.S. reciprocity even for significant military concessions from Pyongyang.

Additional factors affecting the thinking in Seoul are the South Korean views that the Bush administration has tried to undermine President Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy and that the U.S. Military Command in Korea exaggerates the threat from North Korean conventional forces.

Added to these is the lack of any common U.S.-South Korean initiatives toward North Korea -- even on an issue like conventional force reductions where there is clear logic in U.S.- South Korean coordination.

The views expressed are the writer's own and do not necessarily represent any views of the Congressional Research Service or any other agency of the U.S. government.