[OUTLOOK]John Kerry and North Korea

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[OUTLOOK]John Kerry and North Korea

The U.S. presidential election draws near, and there remains some probability that in four months time the U.S. President will no longer be George W. Bush but rather John F. Kerry. Given this, it is important to Korea (and, indeed, to the whole world) what might be Kerry’s position with respect to North Korea. In a speech delivered in June , Mr. Kerry said the administration had ignored North Korea because it was fixated on Iraq, even though the North has sold missiles and technology, and perhaps uranium, to Libya. The North Koreans, he said, were open for business to the highest bidder.
He called for a complete and final elimination of the North’s programs and verification measures, and complained that the Bush administration has, for 18 months, “negotiated over the shape of the table” in the six-party talks. “This problem is too urgent,” he said, “to allow China or others at the table to speak for us.”
So how would campaign rhetoric translate into policy? I cannot speak for John Kerry, and it is likely that he has yet to approve a full policy position. Nonetheless, some clues might be found in his past record. He played a leadership role in the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam during the mid-1990s, and his record in this matter might provide some indication as to how he might approach North Korea. What he urged was a tough position on issues of greatest concern to the United States but a softer touch on other issues.
He told President Clinton that the United States could not dictate an outcome to Vietnam, but should recognize that isolation only strengthens hard-liners while frustrating those seeking an accommodation.
This statement was about Vietnam and not North Korea. But it does suggest what might be the main differences between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry on North Korea. Mr. Bush has pursued a policy of extreme isolation, one that runs counter to Kerry’s instincts. This is reflected in Kerry’s statement that, while not abandoning the six party talks, the United States must be willing to engage directly with North Korea.
Would there be incentive for North Korea to enter into such an engagement? On this issue, I have consulted with a number of senior people in the Democratic Party, and I find that there is a private consensus (although not full agreement) among them that, if the major U.S. goal with respect to North Korea is to end the development of nuclear weapons there, any deal will have to include tangible incentives to the North Korean leadership. This same consensus is shared by at least some advisors to the Chinese leadership whom I have also met and whose fear is not so much a nuclear-armed North Korea but a possible Japanese response to such a development.
Incentives to North Korea to end its nuclear weapons development can be criticized on two grounds: First (this has been the position of the Bush administration), incentives would “reward bad behavior” and perhaps encourage other nations to develop nuclear weapons in order that they too be rewarded for discontinuing such programs. Second, such an approach was in fact tried under the Agreed Framework and it failed. On this, however, it is well understood that the United States failed to deliver much of the promised assistance to North Korea during the late 1990s and hence the North Koreans had every reason to think that U.S. promises were hollow. With respect to the first objection, rewarding bad behavior may be undesirable on moral grounds but on pragmatic grounds it might be the only feasible means to achieve the goal of ending the threat of nuclear proliferation in Asia. Alas, the price that likely would have to be paid to North Korea for ending its nuclear programs now is surely much higher than when the Agreed Framework was negotiated.
Whether incentives to North Korea might be part of a Democratic administration’s policy towards that country is not yet known. But a more pragmatic and more effective way to deal with North Korea is badly needed because the present approach, as noted by Mr. Kerry, is not working.

* The writer is senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.


by Edward M. Graham

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