[OVERSEAS VIEW]Low hopes for talks could lead to resultsThe announcement that the six-party talks will resume this week provoked surprisingly little reaction from the Washington, D.C. press or think tank community. No doubt part of the reason is the intense debate here about the Iraq Strategy Group report. But even in Asia, the announcement on the six-party talks has gotten more of a yawn than a hurrah. The low expectations do not reflect failings in the format or in the intentions of the other parties. Instead, something more basic has happened in Washington ― a consensus has begun to form on the real nature of the Kim Jong-il regime.
Pyongyang’s intentions have become increasingly clear to hawks and doves. The regime seeks nuclear weapons as its paramount national goal. These weapons are designed to deter the United States, it is true. But if North Korea were acting from defensiveness and insecurity, then Pyongyang might show interest in the U.S. offer of security assurances. They have not, because the nuclear weapons are intended for much more than deterring a U.S. attack. They are also meant to prevent North Korea’s absorption by an increasingly powerful China and to demonstrate the legitimacy of the North Korean regime at a time when the Dear Leader is being eclipsed on the world stage by South Korea’s success and now Ban Ki-moon. The weapons are also intended to keep the Korean People’s Army in line. The army is the only institution in the North that functions and the soldiers are demoralized and unable to train for conventional war, so Kim Jong-il tells them to remain loyal because his nuclear weapons will assure victory.
Nor is North Korea intending to establish a passive new equilibrium as a nuclear weapons power. North Korea intends to use its nuclear weapons for leverage ― not as a bargaining chip to be traded away, but as a source of tension and terror in the region that will increase the amount neighboring states are willing to pay to retain stability without any fundamental change in Pyongyang’s behavior. And part of the price the North will demand is a gradual dismantling of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence and alliance system in Northeast Asia.
Inducements are clearly not enough to change North Korea’s behavior. In the past, nations have abandoned their nuclear weapons programs in order to converge with the international economy. Examples include South Africa, Brazil, Ukraine and Libya. But North Korea is developing nuclear weapons precisely so it can avoid convergence, which Kim Jong-il sees as tantamount to suicide.
I therefore welcome this new cynicism and lowered set of expectations in Washington. Just as there is a growing consensus about the nature of the Kim Jong-il regime in Washington, there is also a converging assessment among the other four parties about Pyongyang’s intentions. That means we can go into this round with a clear-headed pragmatism. We now know some basic truths about this problem:
First, we must be extremely wary of “breakthroughs.” We know North Korea is not about to reverse course and we must avoid any temptation to remove sanctions or provide new inducements in exchange for words alone. When the other delegations try to negotiate an “early harvest” from North Korea next week, Pyongyang’s measures must be concrete and verifiable. These measures might include allowing inspectors back to Yongbyon and halting plutonium enrichment or revealing the details of the highly enriched uranium program. However, North Korea must not receive any rewards or relaxation of sanctions in exchange for promising not to test again or pledging simply to continue participating in the talks. That would be foolish, since these pledges are easily reversible.
Second, while North Korea has agreed to come back to the talks, we know Pyongyang is very unlikely to reverse its nuclear program unless there is considerably more pressure. Beijing has finally recognized this and agreed to specific financial sanctions to impose punishment on Pyongyang without risking regime collapse. Viewed from Washington, it appears the South Korean government is still reluctant to impose pressure on Pyongyang, though the decision to back the UN Human Rights Commission resolution on North Korea was no doubt noticed in Pyongyang. Still, Seoul is sending very mixed signals. For example, after the government agreed to endorse the Proliferation Security Initiative, leaders of the Uri Party unhelpfully announced to the world there would be no change in North-South economic cooperation. If there is no change in the engagement policy, how can we realistically expect Pyongyang to change its increasingly provocative behavior?
There is a saying going around in Washington that North Korea may not respond to pressure, but it never responds without pressure. If we are going to have any prospect for success in the next round of talks ― defined as concrete incremental progress toward rolling back the North Korea nuclear program ― then the North must recognize that non-action on its part will bring greater pressure.
The Sanctions Committee of the UN will meet after the talks, and if there is no progress in Beijing, then the most expansive definition of the list of North Korean entities should be adopted by the committee. Seoul should also review the content of its engagement policy so cash from Kumgang and Kaesong goes to North Korean workers, not directly to the regime. China must also expand its sanctions implementation.
Maybe the five parties and the UNSC are now realistic enough to reach agreement on such an approach. We have a chance to do so because of the beauty of low expectations.
*The writer is former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green