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[OUTLOOK]Navigating a course in the storm

July 15,2003
Despite the brewing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, an eerie sense of calm has pervaded the peninsula for the past two months. Unfortunately, it is the calm before the storm.
The Bush administration is quietly knitting together the multilateral coalition to put pressure on the North Korean regime’s exports of illicit material including drugs, counterfeit money and missile technology. The larger political pretext for this is the Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at creating a global norm against the transfer of weapons of mass destruction, but the specific objective vis-a-vis North Korea is to squeeze the regime until it gives up its nuclear weapons programs.
In direct opposition to this strategy, the North Korean regime appears ever more determined to retain a nuclear deterrent to ensure its survival. The North Koreans that we met in San Diego at the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation and the Stanley Foundation in June made this point in no uncertain terms. They justified their actions on the grounds that the United States “is trying to kill us.”
These stances will eventually bump heads when the United States starts interdicting North Korean shipments. Studies commissioned by various intelligence agencies and private groups believe that Pyeongyang will probably respond to these interdictions with a nuclear test. And it will be at this point that the crisis between the United States and North Korea will enter territory that neither country is familiar with.
Three books to be released this fall in the United States may offer some insights on the brewing crisis. “Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies” (Columbia University Press), written by myself and Professor David Kang of Dartmouth College, anticipates that the crisis will move to a level of escalation not seen in the 1994 crisis. The book has a detailed account, based on participant interviews, of the October 2002 Pyeongyang meeting that started the nuclear crisis and argues that some form of negotiation over the nuclear and missile programs will eventually take place. But this will happen only after things go to the brink first.
Another book, by Joel Wit, Dan Ponemon and Robert Gallucci, “Going Critical: The 1994 North Korean Nuclear Crisis” (Brookings Institution), offers insights into the first nuclear crisis with North Korea based on participant interviews and recently declassified documents. Perhaps the most interesting revelation in this book is that there was much more consensus among the United States and the regional players about dealing with the crisis. The authors, all former U.S. government officials intimately involved in the 1994 nuclear negotiations, argue that the United States generally had the tacit consent of China, Japan, and South Korea to move to tougher measures and a UN security council resolution for sanctions, if negotiations had failed. This runs contrary to conventional histories of the crisis stating that Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing were very reluctant to move to sanctions prematurely.
Yet another book, by Michael O’Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki, “Toward a Grand Bargain with North Korea” (McGraw-Hill Publishers), argues for a larger peace solution on the peninsula. O’Hanlon, who has written previously on arms control issues, argues that the core of the agreement is conventional arms reductions on the peninsula and a phased process of nuclear disarmament with the United States and regional partners providing security assurances to the North. The book provides very detailed facets of what would amount to a 1945 Potsdam-type conference to achieve a lasting peace.
These three books will have an important impact on the public policy debate in the United States. Rarely do we see three books on Korea by major U.S. publishing houses at once. In addition, all of the authors have written significant opinion pieces on North Korea policy for the major American dailies.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is that despite having different approaches on policy, the books in unison offer some important messages about how to navigate the next crisis with North Korea sitting imminently on the horizon. First, if the Wit, Ponemon and Gallucci book is correct, then the only negotiating path ― as the Bush administration has correctly insisted ― is multilateral. Indeed, what made the bilateral U.S.-D.P.R.K. negotiations in 1994 succeed, according to the authors, was the consensus among Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing that the alternative was a path to sanctions.
Second, a critical ingredient to any path out of the next crisis is a more substantive elaboration of what verifiably and irreversibly giving up nuclear weapons would be for the North. The Bush administration, because of the severity of North Korea’s nonproliferation violations, has been reluctant to specify this, but the O’Hanlon and Mochizuki book offers at least some notions about what the end game might look like. In particular, because the nuclear issue has become so difficult, it emphasizes attaining an interim freeze on the nuclear programs, but focuses on conventional arms reductions. Real agreements on mutual reductions in this area would then reduce tensions and build confidence for nuclear disarmament talks.
Finally, the challenge in the upcoming crisis will be the extent to which the United States and the coalition of the willing can apply enough pressure to the North to force them to seek a face-saving way out of the crisis, without triggering a massive escalation. As the Cha and Kang book notes, the stakes are incredibly high and ensuring a deep Chinese and South Korean stake in the strategy is the best assurance against a spasmodic North Korean reaction.

* The writer is the D.S. Song-Korea Foundation Chair of Government and Asian Studies at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service.


by Victor Cha


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