War Stories

The North Korean Solution

What’s so bad about Kim’s latest offer?

Last week’s long-awaited nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea seemed, at first glance, disastrous. Over lunch on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Li Gun took Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly aside and told him (according to U.S. officials) that North Korea already has some nuclear weapons and that “it’s up to you whether we do a physical demonstration or transfer them.” President Bush reacted dismissively, telling NBC, “They’re back to the old blackmail game.”

And indeed it appeared to be so. China’s foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, who had sponsored and mediated the talks in Beijing, was clearly appalled by his neighbor’s bluster. The South Korean government, whose new president, Roh Moo-hyun, was elected on a platform of outreach to the north, declared that a nuclear Pyongyang was unacceptable. The major newspapers commonly reported that the talks had “broken down.”

However, developments over the weekend suggested something more subtle, and potentially hopeful, was going on. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reported that Kelly told Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, that the North Koreans had made a “bold, new proposal.” Kelly also told other Asian officials that the meeting left him “more optimistic” than he had been after his session in Pyongyang last October.

That October session was when Kelly confronted North Korean officials with U.S. intelligence data indicating that Pyongyang, in violation of a 1994 agreement, had secretly started up its nuclear program. North Korea admitted the charge and then started the crisis. It kicked international inspectors out of its nuclear reactor, unlocked the fuel rods, and transferred the rods to a reprocessing plant, where they could be used to produce plutonium.

At the time, North Korean officials said they would halt the nuclear program if the United States agreed, in face-to-face negotiations, to resume its part of the 1994 deal, known as the Agreed Framework—which involved providing Pyongyang with two lightwater nuclear reactors (for energy production), food and economic assistance, and a non-aggression pact. In November, shortly before becoming consumed with Iraq, Bush rejected the proposal, calling it “blackmail” and saying it would be “appeasement” to “reward bad behavior.”

There the face-off stood, with experts noting that, if reprocessing commenced, North Korea could build two or three nuclear weapons by June and a half-dozen by the end of the year. Then the war with Iraq finished. The talks with North Korea got underway, with—at least so far—brusque results.

But what was this “bold, new proposal” that North Korea brought to the table and that made Kelly feel a bit more sanguine about the future than his president? The Los Angeles Times cited the South Korean newspaper Joong Ang Ilbo as reporting that the North Koreans said they would give up their nuclear program if the United States provided economic assistance and signed a non-aggression pact. (Today’s Wall Street Journal cites Bush “administration moderates” to the same effect.)

It is unclear what aspect of this proposal is so “new”; it seems to be a reprise of North Korea’s offer late last year. (One possibility may be that Pyongyang is no longer demanding an exact resumption of the 1994 arrangement, but would accept other terms of aid.) In any case, the question that the Bush administration must now face is this: What’s the problem?

North Korean President Kim Jong-il is probably the nuttiest leader on the planet; certainly he runs its most isolated regime. He’s on the verge of going nuclear, and if he crosses that threshold he will have no compunctions about selling the products—enriched uranium, plutonium, or bombs themselves—to the highest bidder. And here he is, offering to give it all up if Bush normalizes relations and promises not to attack his territory? This may be “blackmail,” but Bush didn’t let harsh labels get in the way when he offered Turks $6 billion to let the 4th Infantry Division use their soil as a base for invading Iraq. If Bush were to accept Kim’s terms, how exactly would that harm U.S. interests?

The (possibly lamentable) fact is, Bush has few options in this game and everybody knows it. (It’s this universal knowledge that allows Kim to behave so outrageously.)

U.N. sanctions and economic embargoes would have scant effect on a regime that, a few years ago, happily allowed 2 million of its citizens to die of famine rather than open up its borders.

The military option is, to put it mildly, a high risk. Yes, a handful of F-117A stealth fighters and B-2 bombers could destroy North Korea’s nuclear reactors with little trouble. But the attack could have two consequences. First, the radioactivity would likely spread down to South Korea and perhaps across to Japan, killing thousands and setting off an international panic.

Second, and more serious, the North Koreans could retaliate. Seoul, the South Korean capital, lies less than 50 miles across the border. North Korea has, well within shooting range, 500 Koksan 170mm artillery guns and 200 multiple-launch rockets, possibly loaded with chemical munitions. It has 500 to 600 Scud missiles, also perhaps fitted with chemical warheads. And it has over 100 No-dong missiles that could hit Japan.

Many of these weapons, especially the artillery pieces, are buried in caves or deployed on mobile launchers. There could be no assurance that U.S. airstrikes would destroy all, or even most, of them in a pre-emptive attack.

Finally, about three-quarters of North Korea’s million-man army stands within 100 miles of the DMZ. Ultimately, U.S. and South Korean forces would defeat this army—which, despite its size, is fairly dismal. (Most of its weapons date back to the 1950-53 Korean War!) Still, it could cover critical ground and do a lot of damage, in the short run.

Beyond all this, the CIA estimates that North Korea might have one or two nuclear weapons from the plutonium it could have reprocessed before the 1994 deal was negotiated with Clinton. (And, by the way, as much as Bush puts down that deal, it’s worth noting that, had it not been negotiated, Pyongyang could have produced enough fissile material to build 150 to 200 nuclear weapons by now.)

The big question, of course, is whether Kim really does have nukes. Certainly he wants us to think he does—the better to deter Bush from attacking him. Li Gun’s lunch-time revelation to Kelly may well have been a bluff, designed to enhance this deterrent. There is some reason to suspect that the other part of his statement that day—that North Korea is almost done reprocessing all 8,000 of its nuclear fuel rods—is untrue. (For more on how we might know this, click here.)

It would be worth Bush’s while to consider the possibility that Kim’s desire for a non-aggression pact is sincere—and his desire for nuclear weapons, short of such a pact, might be rational. Bush, after all, listed North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as a member of the “axis of evil.” He pointedly refuses to exclude military force as a possible way to deal with North Korea’s threat. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a few months ago, sent F-117s to the U.S. base in South Korea and B-1s to Guam as an explicit counterthreat. Over the weekend, as part of Kim’s latest diplomatic ploy, the KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency, released a statement noting that Pyongyang “has no option but to boost its self-defense capability and its physical deterrent force.”

On the other hand, Kim Jong-il is nobody to take at face value. His negotiating style—and that of his father, Kim Il Sung, who died and left him the throne in 1996—has always been built around bluff, bluster, and brinkmanship. But this style is also the creative flourish of a country that has long considered itself a “shrimp among whales.” Various international incidents—from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 to the Afghanistan wars of 1980 to last year—have taught the Kims that they cannot count on alliances, and so they must maximize their leverage by playing the large powers (“the whales”) off one another.

One positive sign from last week’s talks is that Kim may no longer be able to play this game. His deputy foreign minister’s lunch-time message was so clumsy and blatant that even China and South Korea were horrified. Until recently, these countries’ leaders were unwilling to go along with Bush’s hardball approach to Pyongyang. Now they’re waking up and seeing it might be necessary—if indeed Bush casts it as an approach, a style of diplomacy, and not just a refusal to deal with Pyongyang at all.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, when the Clinton-era Agreed Framework was in force, the energy assistance to Pyongyang was administered by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an entity that consisted of delegates from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. In his 1999 book, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior, Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation observes that as long as activity could be funneled through this multilateral body, things went fairly well.

Any agreement reached this time around must be firmer than the Agreed Framework. Kim Jong-il must agree not just to halt his nuclear program, as his father did in 1994, but to reverse it; not just to put the fuel rods under lock and key, but to get rid of them. For him to do this, Bush and his Asian allies must offer equally dramatic security guarantees and tangible economic assistance—which might gradually have the effect of opening up North Korea to the world, which could carry benefits for everybody.