War Stories

It’s Time To Talk to Pyongyang

Negotiating with dictators is odious, but the alternatives are far worse.

Time to call Kim
Time to call Kim

So the North Koreans say they have a nuclear weapon. Why should anyone be surprised? And why does everyone in the Bush administration and the White House press corps seem to think the announcement is something new?

Back on April 25, 2003—nearly two years ago—the Washington Post published a front-page story by Glenn Kessler headlined “North Korea Says It Has Nuclear Arms: At Talks with U.S., Pyongyang Threatens ‘Demonstration’ or Export of Weapon.”

What is truly new about this week’s story is the North Korean foreign ministry’s outright refusal to take part in the next round of six-party talks on nuclear disarmament, though Pyongyang officials have threatened such a boycott before, and the ministry may soften its adamancy before the month is out.

We don’t know whether the North Koreans possess any actual nuclear weapons until they test one. We do know that they have reprocessed enough plutonium to build a dozen or so nukes, and President Bush’s reckless policies—no less than Kim Jong-il’s—must be held responsible for that frightening development.

A little history to explain what’s going on. In 1993-94, the North Koreans threatened to reprocess their nuclear reactor’s spent fuel rods into plutonium—the fastest way to get nuclear weapons. After a tense standoff, Kim Jong-il and President Bill Clinton signed an “Agreed Framework.” The rods were locked in a pool and placed under continuous monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the United States promised to furnish North Korea with two light-water reactors for fuel and, eventually, to establish full diplomatic relations. By the end of the decade, the deal was collapsing. The United States never came through with the reactors or the relations; Kim secretly pursued nukes through enriched uranium. But those fuel rods, which could have processed enough plutonium for more than 50 bombs by the time Clinton left office, stayed locked up.

In October 2002, the CIA caught on to the enriched-uranium ploy, and the North Koreans, once presented with the evidence, confessed (though they later retracted the admission). In December, the North Koreans tried to replay the crisis of 1993, threatening to unlock the fuel rods, kick out the IAEA’s monitors, and reprocess plutonium unless President George W. Bush supplied fuel aid and promised not to invade. Bush didn’t go along, saying that even sitting down with North Koreans would reward “bad behavior.” Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to topple Kim’s horrible regime. To negotiate with the regime would legitimize and perpetuate it.

So in January 2003, the North Koreans carried out their threat. U.S. spy satellites spotted a convoy of trucks moving from the reactor to the reprocessing facility. Bush did nothing in response. Despite urgings from Secretary of State Colin Powell, he refused to negotiate. Briefings from his military advisers indicated the attack options were too risky. Intelligence agencies didn’t—and still don’t—know where all the nuclear targets are. And the North Korean army has thousands of artillery rockets—some loaded with chemical munitions—deployed near the South Korean border, a five-minute flight from the capital, Seoul. A U.S. attack would miss some of those rockets; a North Korean retaliation could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. Every U.S. ally in the region has said a military option is out of the question.

Not until last June did Bush authorize James Kelly, then the assistant secretary of state, to put a specific offer on the table. Yet the offer was nearly identical to a deal that the North Koreans had proposed 18 months earlier, before they started reprocessing the plutonium. They would need a much more attractive bargain to cash in the chips, once they had them.

Now that the elections are over—the one here and the one in Iraq—will Bush start to focus on this genuine nuclear crisis? Now that the secretary of state is his trusted adviser, Condoleezza Rice, will he pursue a negotiating strategy?

Maybe, but there’s no evidence for thinking so. Rice, at least in the past, has seemed to agree with Cheney and Rumsfeld that regime change—and, therefore, not negotiation—is the proper policy toward Kim Jong-il. In January 2001, during the transition leading up to Bush’s first term, several Clinton officials briefed Powell and Rice on progress that had been made toward cementing the Agreed Framework and negotiating a further treaty banning North Korean missiles. Three of those officials told me that Powell was very interested in their briefing, while Rice was noticeably cold. (Shortly after the inauguration, Powell told reporters Bush would resume where Clinton left off on the Korean talks; the White House brusquely denied this claim and Powell, in what was the first of many defeats, had to backpedal.)

The North Koreans have said consistently and repeatedly that they will dismantle their nuclear weapons program if the United States does three things: drop its aggressive stance toward the country; establish diplomatic relations; and resume the aid promised in the 1994 accord.

If Kim Jong-il was the sanest leader on the planet (and those who have negotiated with him say that he’s not as loony as he seems, that he’s well-informed and can behave quite rationally), he might still have good reason to desire a cache of nuclear weapons. First, from Bush’s “axis of evil” to Rice’s “outposts of tyranny,” the administration has never relaxed its open hostility to North Korea. Any leader of Pyongyang could justify wanting nukes as a deterrent. Second, North Korea is an impoverished country with nothing to put on the table in negotiations. Nukes give Kim a potent bargaining chip. It’s an unpleasant thing to be put over a barrel by some terrible tyrant, but if we want him to forgo nuclear weapons, we have to give him something that he values in return.

In June 2003, Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, led a delegation to Pyongyang and proposed a specific 10-step timetable for implementing such an exchange. North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun endorsed the plan.

Was he sincere? Who knows? There was only one way to find out, and Bush didn’t go there. Would any disarmament proposal be feasible and verifiable now—two years after the North Koreans started reprocessing all 8,000 of their fuel rods and at least 18 months after they might have started producing nuclear weapons? When Pyongyang first proposed a deal, which explicitly included an offer to put the rods back under IAEA control, there was still a chance to stuff the genie in the bottle. Now nobody knows where the plutonium and enriched uranium are stored, how many bombs there are, or, if they exist, where they’re stored.

In short, President Bush may well have blown it. If there is still time to strike a deal, he has to strike one very soon and not just ask the Chinese to persuade Kim to back down. As is, Bush has waited so long to get serious that an accord—if one were reached—will cost us a lot more than it would have a year or two ago. There are only three alternatives to diplomacy, though, and they are grimmer still. One is to launch a war that nobody in the region would tolerate and that we lack the resources to wage. Another is to apply sanctions in order to isolate North Korea, a country that is already, by its leader’s choice, the most isolated on earth. The third is to live with the fact that the world’s last totalitarian has joined the league of nuclear powers.

If President Bush doesn’t like any of those alternatives (and who could?), it’s time—it may be his last opportunity—to swallow hard and pick up the phone.