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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

Cosponsor: Korea Society

Kenzo Oshima, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, United Nations

Peter Hayes, Executive Director, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development (via videoconference)

Leon Sigal, Director, Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, Social Science Research Council

Moderator: Charles Armstrong, Associate Professor of History, and Chair of the Center for Korean Research, Columbia University

North Korea has just lit three nuclear fuses, all of them long ones. North Korea could soon light a short nuclear fuse as well.

It is seeking equipment to enrich uranium. U.S. intelligence estimates, and I quote, North Korea "is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade." The uranium enrichment fuse, in other words, is more than three years long.

North Korea is preparing to restart production of plutonium by refueling its reactor at Yongbyon, which had been frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Once refueled -- the North told the IAEA that would take one or two months -- the reactor could generate a bomb's worth of plutonium in a year. Allowing at least another six months to reprocess and weaponize the plutonium, it could have a nuclear device in a year and a half, another device a year or so later, or five to six in five years.

Pyongyang also says it will resume construction of two reactors frozen under the 1994 accord. It will take at least two years to complete the first, longer to complete the second. Were they up and running, the three reactors could generate 30 bombs' worth of plutonium a year. Again, that fuse is quite long.

North Korea has yet to light a short fuse by removing the spent fuel now stored in casks in Yongbyon and reprocessing it. It could soon do so. If it does, within a year it could have five or six bombs' worth of plutonium fabricated into nuclear devices.

These nuclear fuses are real. By contrast, whether or not North Korea already has one or two bombs is not known for sure. A divided U.S. intelligence community estimated in November 1993, nearly a year before the Agreed Framework was signed, that "it was more likely than not" it had "one, possibly two" nuclear devices, which was later lowered to one. Why the administration is now treating that possibility as a certainty is worth asking.

By its actions Pyongyang has convinced many in Washington it is determined to arm and should be punished for brazenly breaking its commitments. Both that assessment and the policy that flows from it are wrong.

North Korea is no Iraq. It says it is ready to give up its nuclear, missile, and other weapons programs. In return it wants the United States to stop treating it like an enemy. The North's willingness to cut its nuclear fuses before they detonate a grave crisis is worth probing in direct negotiations.

That is what Pyongyang is seeking by renouncing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Renunciation not only leaves it no longer lawfully bound not to make nuclear arms, although it says it does not intend to do so "at this stage." It also leaves the 1994 Agreed Framework in effect as the only basis for negotiating inspections directly with the United States. This is intended to underscore North Korea's basic stance that if the United States remains its foe, it feels threatened and will seek nuclear arms and missiles to counter that threat, but if the United States is no longer its foe, it says it will not.

To understand why the North is acting this way, it is essential to recall how we got here. In the early 1990s Pyongyang decided to trade in its plutonium program in return for an end to enmity. At the same time it kept its nuclear option open as leverage on Washington to live up to its end of the bargain.

That became the basis of the October 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its plutonium program in return for two new light-water reactors for generating electricity, an interim supply of heavy fuel oil, gradual relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions, and, above all, improved relations.

Washington got what it most wanted up front, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans won control of Congress in elections just weeks later, they denounced the deal as appeasement. The Clinton administration, unwilling to challenge Congress, back-pedaled on implementation. It did little easing of sanctions until 1999. Reactor construction did not get under way until 1999. It did not always deliver heavy fuel oil on schedule. Above all, it did live up to the pledge made in Article II to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations" -- in other words, end enmity. When Washington was slow to fulfill the terms of the accord, Pyongyang threatened to break it in 1997. Its effort to acquire technology to enrich uranium began soon thereafter.

At the same time the North tried again to improve relations, this time using its missile program as inducement. On June 16, 1998, it publicly offered to negotiate an end to its development as well as exports of ballistic missiles in return for a declared end to enmity. It coupled that offer with a threat to resume missile tests, a threat it carried out on August 31 when it launched a three-stage rocket, the Taepodong I, over Japan in an unsuccessful attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

Pyongyang's tactics led many to conclude it was engaging in blackmail in an attempt to extort economic aid without giving up anything in return. It was not. It was playing tit for tat, cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end hostile relations.

Thanks to Kim Dae Jung and Bill Perry, Washington got back on the road to reconciliation in 1999. That policy paid off that September when Pyongyang agreed to suspend its test launching of missiles while negotiations proceeded. In return, Washington promised to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a pledge it carried out after the June 2000 North-South summit.

High-level talks in October 2000 yielded a pledge that "neither government would have hostile intent toward the other." In plain English, we are not enemies.

The declared end to enmity opened the way to a missile deal. In negotiations with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il offered to end exports of all missile technology and to freeze testing, production, and deployment of all missiles with a range of 300 miles. Kim wanted President Clinton to come to Pyongyang to seal the deal, consummation of a ten-year campaign to end enmity with the United States. Without his commitment to come, negotiations stalled.

Instead of picking up the ball where Clinton had dropped it, Bush moved the goalposts. Although it was aware of North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile activities, the administration did not resume negotiations. Instead, it tried to reinterpret the Agreed Framework unilaterally, demanding prompt inspections to get at the North's nuclear past. In response, the North expressed willingness to renegotiate the 1994 nuclear accord, trading expedited inspections for electricity, which it regards as compensation for the delay in reactor construction, but without a deal it warned it could "no longer keep its nuclear activities in a state of freeze and implement the Agreed Framework." The North accelerated efforts to acquire the means to enrich uranium. Then in 2002 President Bush repudiated the U.S. pledge of no "hostile intent" by naming North Korea to the so-called "axis of evil" and announcing a new doctrine of waging preventive war -- without allies, without U.N. sanction, in violation of international law. The North in turn began acquiring an operational capability to enrich uranium.

North Korea wants direct negotiations with the United States. It says it is willing to refreeze the plutonium program that it has unfrozen and to negotiate verifiable elimination of its uranium enrichment program. It has also offered to discuss its chemical and biological programs.

In return it says it wants a written pledge that the United States will not attack it, impede its economic development, or seek to overthrow its government -- not a reward for bad behavior but nothing more than the commitments Washington made in 1994 and did not keep. If Washington refuses, Pyongyang will proceed with nuclear arming. And until it is sure the political relationship is improved, it will keep its nuclear option open as a hedge by refusing to dismantle its plutonium facilities for now.

Negotiations with North Korea can avoid a replay of the 1994 nuclear crisis. Then, as now, Washington had four options: compel the collapse of North Korea, which was thought likely to provoke the North to nuclear arm sooner than collapse; impose sanctions, which were rightly deemed unlikely to be effective; attack its nuclear facilities, which was not certain to eliminate all the nuclear material and sites in the North but sure to risk war and raise a political storm in the South; or negotiate.

The administration's refusal to sit down and talk until North Korea dismantles its uranium enrichment program makes no sense. Do we really want the North to dismantle it without U.S. inspectors present? And how do we get inspectors into North Korea without negotiating with Pyongyang?

Pyongyang seems willing to cut its nuclear fuses while negotiations proceed. Negotiations can begin now before the North gets closer to making bombs or later after the North has some. By refusing to deal, President Bush may have to live with a nuclear-arming North Korea. Why would North Korea give up its nuclear and missile programs if the United States remains its foe?

This administration began, like its predecessors, by demonizing North Korea as a rogue state. A rogue is a criminal and the way to treat criminals is to punish them, not negotiate.

The administration's approach has put the United States in the way of reconciliation between North and South Korea, which is political dynamite in the South. The Bush administration is also alienating Japan and antagonizing China. An attempt to rein in the United States has been the catalyst for unprecedented cooperation among the other five powers in Northeast Asia. The Japan-D.P.R.K. summit meeting last September and the recent Japan-Russian summit should be seen in this light. So should the warming between South Korea and China. Hardline unilateralists are putting Washington on a collision course with its own allies, undermining political support in South Korea and Japan for the alliance and jeopardizing the U.S. troop presence in the region.

There is a better way: diplomatic give-and-take. That was the strategy pursued in tandem by South Korea and the United States in 1991 and again in 2000, the most fruitful years of dealing with North Korea.

The great divide in American foreign policy thinking is between those who believe that to get our way in the world we have to push other countries around and those who think that cooperation can sometimes reduce threats to our security.

In closing, it is worth reminding ourselves, what U.S. interests are at stake with North Korea.