North Korea’s Nukes

Posted: Dec 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Contrary to various media reports, the joint statement that almost resulted from the six-country talks concerning North Korea’s nukes is actually a victory of sorts for the “hawks” in the administration who favor taking a hard line against Pyongyang.

  Notes one hawkish administration official familiar with the contents of the joint statement, “We got 80% of what we wanted.”  The other 20%, the official explains, mostly consists of one point that institutionalizes the engagement, by calling for talks every other month.

  What has attracted the most attention is the willingness of the U.S. to offer North Korea a written security guarantee in exchange for a scuttling of its nuclear program.  Though this was seen—and intentionally spun by many senior administration officials—as a departure from past policy, it wasn’t. 

  The U.S. has long been willing to offer a security guarantee for a complete destruction of North Korea’s nuclear program—which is why Pyongyang immediately called the “offer” what it was: a restatement of current U.S. policy. 

  The language in the statement of principles—only opposed by China—is vague on the specifics of a security guarantee, in part a reflection of infighting within the administration on that very issue.

  The careerists at the East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) bureau at the State Department, who participated in the first round of talks in August, initially wanted the U.S. to offer a security guarantee as soon as Pyongyang would “commit” to scrapping its nuclear program.  Given North Korea’s history—violating the 1994 pledge to halt all production of nukes—EAP’s proposal was not even seriously considered.

  The new soft-line position is that the security guarantee should be offered once North Korea “credibly commits.”  That language, in fact, has made it into the list of three recommendations now under consideration by the White House. 

  The hard-line option included in the list of possible recommendations is that the security guarantee only follows “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling” of the nuclear program.  But as long as North Korea has even one civilian nuclear reactor—or refuses to grant complete, unfettered access to inspectors—such an exacting standard could probably not be achieved.

  The “compromise” position is offering the security guarantee after inspectors “achieve verifiable benchmarks.”  As one might expect with such vague wording, “verifiable benchmarks” could conceivably run the gamut from being little more than the first option—or little less than “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling.”

  The White House seems headed in a hawkish direction.  President Bush publicly has called for a “complete, irreversible verifiable” elimination of North Korea’s nuclear program—echoing the words chosen by the hawks.

  According to one official familiar with the deliberations on the security guarantee, “Ultimately, the middle option will be chosen.”

  Regardless of the timing of the security guarantee, the U.S. will continue to put the screws to Pyongyang.  The Proliferation Security Initiative, which is designed to identify and seize materials related to non-conventional weapons, is targeted directly at North Korea’s exports and is in full force, according to several administration officials.

  Because North Korea gets 20-40% of its hard currency from weapons sales, the U.S. has also waged a campaign to disinterest possible purchasers of North Korean exports. 

  One example cited repeatedly by U.S. officials to foreign governments is that the much-publicized SCUD missiles sent to Yemen from North Korea last December actually don’t work.  So even though Yemen saved money buying from North Korea, it got nothing for its millions. 

  The pitch appears to be working; several Middle Eastern countries have already agreed not to buy weapons from North Korea.

  The outside measures seem to be all that’s likely to happen on the North Korean front in the near future.  Within hours of receiving the joint statement—which had already been agreed to by Japan and South Korea—China rejected the document.  China wanted economic benefits and more specificity in guarantees made to North Korea, concerns which Pyongyang echoed almost immediately in denouncing the statement.

  Given the quickness with which China rejected the statement, it might be a while before a second round of talks gets underway.  But in the minds of many administration hawks, no deal with North Korea is better than an appeasing one.