In the wake of North Korea's claim that it conducted its first-ever nuclear weapons test, leading Democrats presented their solution: bilateral negotiations with the Kim Jong Il regime. According to Senator Joseph Biden, “We should deal directly with, not negotiate, just lay down, have a straight out, flat out talk with North Korea to find out -- let them know exactly what our bottom line is and find out whether there's any possibility of them ceasing and desisting from their going forward. But the failure to talk at all seems to me to make absolutely no sense.”
Minority Leader Harry Reid put it this way: “[T]he White House must rally the international community and must directly speak with the North Koreans so they understand we will not continue to stand on the sidelines.”
Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson said this: "I would engage directly in face-to-face talks. When you have face-to-face talks, that's when you deliver your toughest message."
And Senator John Kerry said this: "Even when told this test was coming, the administration sat on the sidelines and hoped others would do the job. Surely George Bush could have sent a top-level negotiating team with a mandate to stop this test from going forward. We need to get off the sidelines."
The claim that the Bush Administration is "on the sidelines" is a risible one. The United States has been participating in the six-party talks, which is a multilateral effort -- consisting of the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia and North Korea -- to negotiate the end of North Korea’s nuclear program.
(It's worth noting, in passing, that some critics of the President can't seem to stick to the same script. Sometimes the Bush Administration is criticized for being too "unilateralist;" in this instance, it is criticized for being too multilateralist. One might be forgiven for believing that some of the criticism leveled at the Bush Administration is both incoherent and highly partisan.)
Why has the Bush Administration chosen the vehicle of the six-party talks instead of bilateral negotiations with North Korea? Because China and South Korea are North Korea’s economic lifelines and have the greatest leverage over the North Korean regime. In addition, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have varying degrees of interest in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear program. Their security interest are in fact more directly affected than ours. Our aim is to give these nations a stake in the success of the negotiations -- and ensure that North Korea's obstinate and reckless actions are directed not just at the United States but also China and the other nations. As the President put it, the six-party talks make China and others an "equity partner," aligning their interests with ours. Bilateral talks would have the effect of making China and the other nations spectators in what would be portrayed as only our problem.
In addition, we have had bilateral contacts with North Korea within the context of the six-party talks. The reality is that we have had ample opportunity to speak directly to the North Koreans; they simply did not like what they heard. (North Korea also turned down an invitation to attend a regional security meeting in Kuala Lumpur in July -- the so-called 5+5 Meeting -- and therefore missed an opportunity to engage directly with Secretary Rice at the Foreign Minister level.)
But context and timing are critical. That is what makes the timing of these calls for bilateral negotiations so odd. At precisely the moment when our six-party approach calls for all of the participants to join in strong action and a unified response to North Korea, some in Washington are calling for us to disrupt the process, abandon the six-party talks, divert the pressure on North Korea, and reward the regime's aggressive actions with a concession to their demand for bilateral talks. Talking with our adversaries is not appeasement -- but short-circuiting the pressure on North Korea at precisely the moment that the international community is coming together to ratchet up the pressure on the regime is folly. There is a reason North Korea has been trying to separate the United States from its partners in the talks; they believe it would advance their nuclear ambitions.
The need right now is not for mere talk, but substantial action -- in this case, effective multilateral action, in the form of targeted sanctions and international pressure. The issue has properly moved from the six-party talks to the U.N. Security Council, which should authorize precisely this sort of tough action.
The criticism of the Bush Administration's policy is also shortsighted in light of the history of bilateral negotiations with North Korea.
For one thing, North Korea was believed to have enough material to produce one or two nuclear weapons before President Bush took office, so the nuclear threat from North Korea itself is not new. And the history of bilateral negotiations with North Korea has been characterized by failure. To be specific: The Clinton Administration negotiated the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1993-94. The Agreed Framework supposedly “froze” North Korea’s nuclear program in return for billions of dollars in aid and new nuclear reactors. But we now know that North Korea began violating the agreement almost immediately after signing it, by developing a secret and parallel uranium enrichment program. When confronted in 2002 with evidence of the enrichment program by U.S. officials, North Korea confirmed the program’s existence. And at the time North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment program was disclosed in 2002, Senator Biden said this:
"North Korea's admission that it has an active nuclear weapons program violates both the spirit and the letter of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and other international agreements. North Korea must immediately end its program to develop nuclear weapons, and it must bring itself into full compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation treaty obligations. I commend the Administration for its commitment to work closely with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and our European allies to seek a peaceful resolution to this very serious problem."
Given the events of the last few days, and the charges being bandied about, it's important to see the North Korea situation for what it is, in the light of real-world facts and recent history.