[OUTLOOK]No good way out of this crisisSure, we have nuclear weapons, North Korea’s Ri Gun said to America’s James Kelly in Beijing: What are you going to do about it?
Why does everyone think this is an escalation of the tension? It has been believed for several years that North Korea has nuclear weapons. And who really expected the North Koreans to come meek as lambs to the bargaining table and shyly propose a compromise?
But even if we shouldn’t be surprised, it feels scary, because this really is North Korea’s last chance to join the world. And it seems to be saying, no thanks.
The compromise that makes sense to most South Koreans and most of the world is simple: North Korea would swear off its nuclear program, and rich countries (the United States, South Korea, Japan, the European Union) would give it food and money, diplomatic recognition, a transportation infrastructure, an energy grid, investment capital ― and a guarantee that Kim Jong-il could continue to run the country.
That’s the deal; let the negotiators work out the details. It might cost a trillion dollars or so over the years, but so what, if it’s the price of peace?
Trouble is, obvious as that compromise may seem, it’s hard to see how to tie up the details and put them down on paper.
Begin with the matter of who will go first. If it were only a matter of “saving face,” the diplomats could work out some kind of simultaneous steps for each side to take. But North Korea really cannot afford that. Once it cashes its nuclear card it has no more chips in this game. Pyeongyang simply cannot deal unless the United States first gives it guarantees and turns on the aid spigot. Even then, it must hold on to its nuclear equalizer to make sure that the aid keeps coming and that it is really and truly off the “axis of evil” list. It may be years before North Korea would feel secure enough to give up its bombs.
Such a deal means that the United States and the world accept and deal with North Korea as a nuclear state. Why would Washington buy that?
But suppose that for some reason the Bush administration sympathizes with Pyeong-yang’s predicament and agrees to let it postpone final disarmament for some set term ― let’s say 10 years. It still would require ironclad, intrusive monitoring of North Korean nuclear assets and capabilities over those 10 years. To close all the loopholes for cheating that Pyeongyang has exploited in the past would require a virtual occupation of the country. Why would North Korea accept that?
But perhaps we are too pessimistic. Diplomats are canny beings. With time and goodwill, as Yasser Arafat likes to say, all things are possible. Come to think of it, perhaps he is not the most reassuring example. Moreover, there is real reason to doubt the sufficiency of either time or goodwill.
These negotiations may take two or three years, one pundit wrote as Mr. Ri and Mr. Kelly sat down in Beijing this week. North Koreans are ferociously tenacious negotiators, wrote another, and the discussions are likely to be protracted.
I doubt it. The United States doesn’t have two or three years, if the objective is to stop North Korea from assembling a nuclear arsenal. The longer the negotiators stonewall each other, the closer Pyeongyang comes to that goal. This is the truth behind Mr. Ri’s bluster in Beijiing this week, when he said the North has almost completed reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods into plutonium. Wa-shington is skeptical, but there was no mistaking Mr. Ri’s message: Deal now, on our terms, because we will be in a position to drive a harder bargain later; time is not on your side.
Of course, time may not be on North Korea’s side, either. People have been predicting the Kim regime’s collapse for years, but that does not mean it is immune to collapse ― a point not lost, apparently, on Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. secretary of defense. He is reported to have circulated a memo within the Bush administration proposing a policy of starving Pyeongyang into collapse or submission as an alternative to negotiations.
The memo generated alarm in Seoul, for Mr. Rumsfeld had put things a little too plainly. The alternative to negotiations about strengthening North Korea probably will be its collapse, if not sooner, then later.
To the Seoul government, it appears, the nuclear-weapons issue is important mainly because it gets the United States engaged in the effort to save North Korea. Mr. Rumsfeld’s rosy dream of regime change in Pyeongyang is the nightmare scenario in Seoul, which would have to pick up the pieces. I have heard Koreans seriously argue that the two systems are now so dissimilar that even after a peaceful, agreed-upon reunification the Demilitarized Zone must remain and the North must be sealed off, lest chaos engulf the South. What sort of reunification is that?
So there we have it. The North dare not agree to any deal the United States would accept. Washington will accept nothing short of the North’s denuclearization. And the risks of failure include North Korea’s collapse, or ― as Radio Pyeongyang tirelessly reminds us ― “that a war may break out at any moment.”
I see no way out of this crisis unless the North capitulates. And I don’t see that, either.
* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Hal Piper