Negotiate with North

April 20, 2005|By Leon V. Sigal

NORTH KOREA has just shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Soon it will be able to extract the two bombs' worth or more of plutonium contained in its spent fuel and use it to make weapons.

The only way for the Bush administration to stop that is to communicate directly and authoritatively to Pyongyang that it is ready to end enmity - by renouncing any attempt to attack or to overthrow the regime and by normalizing relations as the North eliminates its nuclear programs.

As North Korea made clear in six-party talks in June, it is ready to freeze its plutonium program as a step to dismantling it. As part of the freeze, it said, it would put the five or six bombs' worth of plutonium it reprocessed last year back under inspection, ensuring that it would not be turned into bombs or sold to terrorists.

It sought an agreement in principle that the United States would normalize relations and provide it with written security assurances. In return for the freeze, it wanted Washington to participate along with Seoul and Tokyo in supplying it with electricity, as promised under the October 1994 Agreed Framework. It also asked to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and to have related sanctions relaxed. Without a deal, it made clear it will continue making nuclear weapons.

If Pyongyang were to extend its freeze and dismantlement pledge to cover its uranium enrichment activities as well, that would defuse the crisis and allow time to negotiate inspections and other issues of concern.

Hard-liners in the Bush administration have opposed any such deal. Instead, they have insisted that Pyongyang must begin dismantling first before Washington would take steps to reciprocate. They have equated diplomatic give-and-take with rewarding bad behavior. They have claimed that under the Agreed Framework, North Korea duped President Bill Clinton by halting its plutonium program while starting a covert effort to enrich uranium.

The trouble is, that claim is pure fiction. Washington got what it most wanted up front: a freeze of Pyongyang's plutonium program, which by now could have generated enough plutonium for at least 50 bombs. But it failed to reward North Korea's good behavior. When Republicans won control of Congress in elections just days after the October 1994 accord was signed, they denounced the deal as appeasement. Shying away from taking them on, Mr. Clinton backpedaled on implementation. President Bush only made matters worse by talking about pre-emptive attack.

In the belief that North Korea is on the verge of collapse, hard-liners in the administration are pushing for an economic embargo and naval blockade to strangle it to death. But all of the North's neighbors know that an embargo and blockade would provoke it to arm sooner than collapse, which is why they won't try. Instead, they have pursued talks of their own with North Korea, which convinced them that Pyongyang was willing to deal.

By impeding a cooperative solution, the hard-liners have put Washington on a collision course not just with Pyongyang but also with America's allies in Asia. They are eroding political support in South Korea and Japan for the alliance and jeopardizing the U.S. troop presence in the region. The chief beneficiary of their intransigence has been China.

The hard-liners' strategy has failed. North Korea has just called their bluff - and raised the stakes. The only way to reverse the political erosion in northeast Asia and improve U.S. security is for President Bush to try negotiating for a change.

Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, is the author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.

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