Nuclear myths, mistakes and North Korea

July 07, 1994|By Selig S. Harrison

WASHINGTON -- NOW THAT high-level talks between the United States and North Korea are to resume soon, three myths that have haunted the U.S. debate over the nuclear crisis for two years need to be dispelled.

But if three myths are not refuted, the administration will have difficulty winning congressional and public support for a realistic settlement.

* Myth No. 1: North Korea is irrational and unpredictable, and no negotiated solution is possible.

Pyongyang has pursued a consistent nuclear strategy since a showdown in 1991 between the moderates and hard-liners in the Central Committee of the ruling Workers Party.

Kim Il Sung is in firm control, but his regime is not monolithic.

The Bush administration held one inconclusive meeting with North Koreans in January 1992 but refused to link the nuclear issue with broader North Korean concerns.

Instead, President George Bush adopted a policy, which the Clinton administration has followed, of insisting that Pyongyang meet U.S. demands on inspection as a condition for broader discussions.

Vowing never to "kneel down" before a superpower, North Korean spokesmen, since 1992, have consistently insisted on a package solution in which simultaneous, carefully orchestrated concessions would be made by both sides.

* Myth No. 2: Negotiations have been tried and have failed,

making force necessary.

This seemed to be true because the administration held two rounds of high-level talks with Pyongyang in June and July 1993, precipitated by Pyongyang's with drawal from the treaty.

But the United States cut off the exchanges because of disputes over inspection persisted.

In March, hard-liners in the North's Atomic Energy Ministry blocked inspectors from access to key parts of the reprocessing plant at Yongbyon. But in early May, moderates won a policy reversal and the inspectors returned with full access.

In late May, hard-liners pushed through the unloading of the fuel rods in the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon before agreement had been reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspection procedures.

This will greatly complicate future efforts to establish with certainty how much plutonium Pyongyang has accumulated.

This setback to U.S. interests could have been averted if America had helped the moderates in the past year by extending diplomatic recognition, initiating economic help and pledging no first use of nuclear weapons.

* Myth No. 3: North Korea has flouted the nonproliferation treaty and wants to blackmail the United States.

The treaty permits the withdrawal of signatories. When North Korea pulled out, it exercised its legal right.

In suspending its withdrawal, it stipulated that in its new "unique status" it would not be bound by inspection requirements until a package solution was negotiated providing for its return to the treaty.

Is it blackmail when the United States has 10,500 nuclear weapons while North Korea may or may not have one or two?

Selig S. Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this for the New York Times.

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