[OUTLOOK]Preparing to deal with the North

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[OUTLOOK]Preparing to deal with the North

The press is full of news that affects the prospects for future progress on the North Korean nuclear issue. Viewed from the United States, most of these developments further diminish the chances of an early breakthrough. At best, they suggest the parties most directly concerned are buying time while seeking to bolster negotiating leverage for the future. The working group set up to prepare the ground for the next six-party talks made no evident headway. Nothing of substance emerged, though the parties appear prepared to continue the talks.
Several developments imply a tougher road ahead:
Newspaper reports that the North Koreans supplied substantial quantities of uranium hexafluoride to Libya in 2001 suggest that Pyeongyang’s uranium enrichment program is more advanced than previously thought. Despite this additional intelligence, the North persists with its emphatic, though implausible, denials that it has such a program, and its refusal to contemplate any verification arrangements that might uncover it.
Reports on North Korea’s economy allow the inference that conditions are modestly improving. To the extent developments relieve North Korea’s desperate economic plight, they may have reduced its incentives to make hard choices about its nuclear program.
The North probably sees additional scope for punching holes in the “united front” among its neighbors and the United States. Pyeongyang perceives little evident inducement to offer concessions to the Bush administration at a time when its troubles in Iraq are rapidly increasing and its prospects for reelection appear to be declining.
But not all recent developments foster such a bleak outlook. Growing public evidence of Pyeongyang’s uranium enrichment activities undermines the credibility of its denials of such a program. The primitive state of North Korean infrastructure means that conditions in the North remain extremely harsh and that its prospects for ameliorating those conditions continue to depend urgently on outside help.
The rise in international oil prices must complicate the North’s efforts to revitalize its economy while enhancing China’s leverage as the North’s principal supplier of fuel. And the dismantling of sanctions against Libya underscores the possibility of a dramatic turnaround in international support for nations that renounce nuclear weapons activities in a comprehensive and verifiable manner.
On balance, the trajectory of events is not particularly encouraging, yet not entirely hopeless.
A key question for Washington and Seoul is how we are using the time, pending the resumption of serious negotiations. First, we have talked about the need for “verifiability,” but have we devised verification arrangements that we would regard as adequate? I have the impression the administration neither has detailed plans in this respect, nor has mobilized allied support for such plans.
Second, I believe that to have any chance of achieving a successful diplomatic outcome, the United States and North Korea’s neighbors need a joint strategy which can impel Pyeongyang to make a very hard choice. This will require a broad array of positive inducements to secure the North’s agreement to dismantle its weapons in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner. It also requires North Korea’s clear awareness that a rejection of this condition will bring even greater misery ― serious economic and political sanctions.
For Washington, Iraq clearly is the major preoccupation. But there is plenty of hard work to do now if we are to be prepared for serious negotiations after November.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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