President Bush walks a dangerous path in North Korea

April 05, 2002|By Robert M. Hathaway

WASHINGTON -- The pock-marked dirt road leading to North Korea's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon provides a fitting metaphor for that impoverished nation's efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal more appropriate for a superpower than a desperately poor country.

But in the wake of the recent decision by the Bush administration not to certify North Korean compliance with a 1994 nuclear agreement, we should recall what Sept. 11 so tragically demonstrated -- that even adversaries with modest technological capabilities can inflict massive harm on the United States.

President Bush has not accused North Korea of violating the Agreed Framework, which has frozen Pyongyang's production of the plutonium needed to make nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials say merely that they do not have sufficient information to render an informed judgment.

But since CIA Director George J. Tenet testified March 19 that North Korea is complying with the accord, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Bush's decision is designed primarily as a sop to hard-liners within the administration and Congress who have never liked the Agreed Framework.

To be sure, there are reasons for genuine concern about the future of the Agreed Framework. Under the terms of the agreement, the North, before receiving any nuclear components for the two reactors being built as part of the accord, is obligated to satisfy the international community regarding its nuclear activities before 1994. Even if Pyongyang fully cooperates in this task -- and no one expects it to do so -- this will take at least three years.

So in order to keep the Agreed Framework on track, the North must begin now to come clean on its past activities, even though it is not required to satisfy international monitors for several more years. If Pyongyang values the agreement, it should move immediately to facilitate the needed inspections.

The White House insists the United States is not walking away from the Agreed Framework. The president will use his waiver authority to continue providing Pyongyang with nearly $100 million of heavy fuel oil, per the terms of the agreement. The administration will continue to supply the North with large amounts of humanitarian food aid. It will continue its efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.

Nonetheless, the president's refusal to certify compliance in the absence of evidence to the contrary is dangerous.

Coming on top of Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" talk and reports about Pentagon nuclear targeting of North Korea, it will further convince Pyongyang of U.S. hostility. It will give new ammunition to those in Pyongyang who argue that the United States is not serious about negotiations. It will strengthen those North Koreans who maintain that by freezing its plutonium production, the North has prematurely given up its trump card. It could lead Pyongyang to abandon its self-imposed moratorium on missile tests. It will further dismay U.S. friends in the region, especially our South Korean ally.

During his recent visit to Seoul, Mr. Bush went out of his way to endorse the engagement policy of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. South Koreans, however, believe that progress in North-South relations will be impossible until U.S.-North Korean ties get back on track. Mr. Bush's latest action undercuts President Kim and has created new unhappiness in Seoul, notwithstanding Mr. Bush's professed desire to strengthen U.S. ties with the South.

If the Bush administration believes the North is violating the Agreed Framework, it should say so. But lacking this evidence, it should avoid steps that will almost certainly harm important U.S. interests in East Asia and might lead North Korea to do something truly dangerous.

No one trusts Pyongyang. We would be foolish to take its claims of benign intent at face value. But trust has nothing to do with the Agreed Framework. The accord provides for continuous on-the-ground inspections by international monitors.

We should be careful not to pursue policies that would encourage North Korea to expel these inspectors or to take other actions that would undermine the Agreed Framework. It remains in America's interest that the 19th century road leading to Yongbyon not carry vehicles containing the 21st century's deadliest weaponry.

Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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