The Ongoing Nuke Dilemma

Policy adjustment must be made to find a solution to
the nuclear crisis on Korean Peninsula


EYE TO EYE: A North Korean soldier stares down a U.S. soldier across the military demarcation line near Panmunjom

China’s diplomatic efforts have rekindled hope for resuming the six-party talks for resolving the Korean nuclear issue in the wake of Pyongyang’s February 10 statement that it was in possession of nuclear weapons and intended to withdraw from the multilateral dialogue. However, since the declaration has intensified the standoff between the United States and North Korea, the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has taken on urgency. The pragmatic approaches that were employed in working group meetings in the past are no longer possible. A final solution is only possible now if Washington, Pyongyang or both readjust their strategies.

Pyongyang’s Choices

There are two points worthy of notice in North Korea’s statement. First, it highlights North Korea’s disappointment with the policies the Bush administration has adopted toward Pyongyang during its first term and those it will adopt in its second term. North Korea has accused the United States of aiming at a regime change in the country instead of living in peace with North Korea. Second, the statement sent a formal, and more frightening, message that North Korea has manufactured nuclear weapons.

The international community has different interpretations of Pyongyang’s intentions. Objectively speaking, North Korea will not be able to come up with a better way to resolve the nuclear issue other than the six-party talks. Its withdrawal from the talks can do nothing but deteriorate its isolation from the rest of the world, thus harming its social stability and economic development. So, the move is more likely to be a reminder to the international community of the deep-rooted conflict between the United States and North Korea, which, it seems, can no longer be shelved.

Before the announcement, Pyongyang’s remarks about its nuclear capacity could have been regarded as a “mere bluff,” though it would probably become a focal point of future negotiations. In other words, the parties concerned now have to approach the Korean nuclear issue with North Korea’s actual nuclear ability in mind. For North Korea, there are two options. As a country with nuclear capabilities, it could use the promise to give up nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip for a change in the U.S. policy, or it could try to establish itself as a nuclear country through interminable bargaining with other countries. Pyongyang’s choice will have a great bearing on the future development of the six-party talks. Judging from its recognition of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsular, it may prefer the former.

North Korean has since offered its conditions for reopening talks, but the conditions, which are deftly targeted at Washington’s Korean policy, are more like negotiation objectives. It seems that Pyongyang is presenting its demands to Washington.

Washington’s Thinking

WILL THEY BE BACK? Kim Gye Gwan (right), North Korean chief negotiator, arrives in Beijing for the second round of the six-party talks on Korean nuclear issue in February 2004

Washington has rejected Pyongyang’s demands and has urged North Korea to return to the six-party talks without any preconditions. Now it is time for the Bush administration to consider what strategies it should take in future negotiations. It can turn down the preconditions, but in the future, if North Korean puts them forward at the negotiating table, the United States will have to face them anyway.

While addressing the issue of non-proliferation, the United States cannot just set aside its overall global strategy. After the Cold War, the U.S. core strategy has been to maintain its supremacy and allow its ideology to prevail in the world. Currently, the strategy focuses on combating terrorism. In order to ensure the final victory of the anti-terrorist campaign, it has attempted to instill “democracy” by overturning so-called “regimes of tyranny.” Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, is an essential part of the U.S. national strategy. However, clinging to the global strategy of enhancing its position as a superpower, the United States is mainly concerned with the nuclear capability of its antagonists. It tries to prevent “hostile countries” from mastering nuclear technology and deny terrorists access to nuclear materials. When it deals with the nuclear issues of a country, it tends to preconceive the country as an enemy. That unreasonable presumption always complicates the nuke issue.

As far as North Korea is concerned, the United States considers the country as an enemy by labeling it an “outpost of tyranny.” U.S. policymakers often call for a change in North Korea’s regime. Given that stance, the nuclear issue on the peninsula has gone far beyond an issue of non-proliferation. However, Washington still wishes to tackle it as if it were dealing with a simple nuclear issue, only to find itself frustrated.

The United States’ failure to find an effective solution to the Korean nuclear issue can be mainly attributed to its inability to coordinate its long-term strategy and the immediate nuke problem. The United States regards North Korea as a strategic enemy, but it cannot achieve a regime change in North Korea as it did in Iraq due to the geopolitical situation in North East Asia. Washington, therefore, is trying to resolve the problem through dialogue. However, in the negotiations it cannot put aside its deep-seated political distrust of Pyongyang, which derives from the differences in social system and ideology, as well as historical enmity.

Whenever North Korea sends a positive message to overhaul Pyongyang-Washington relations, some people in the United States will challenge the Asian country’s “democracy” and “human rights.” These allegations are considered as an interference of internal affairs by the North Korean side. Due to the dilemma, the U.S. negotiators have tried not to mention the fundamental political divergences in the negotiations. Such U.S. tactics made any promises seem untrustworthy and empty to the Koreans. The Bush administration has reiterated that it has no plan to attack North Korea, but it also keeps saying that it will not renounce the use of force. It is particularly reluctant to drop its hostility toward North Korea, as Pyongyang has demanded. It only gives North Korea the impression that the United States was not sincere in the negotiations.

North Korea’s statement in February reminds the United States of the fact that it should properly handle the political conflict before it can reach a final solution to the nuclear issue. For the United States, there are also two choices. If it aims at a change in the North Korean regime it could continue to adopt tough measures against Pyongyang. Otherwise, it could look to a pragmatic approach, demonstrating flexibility with the deep political conflict. Provided Washington refuses to make any concessions, chances for the settlement of the issue will be very slim.

Prospect of the Talks

Pyongyang’s withdrawal has suspended the six-party talks but, at the same time, it could pave the way for substantial progress in future talks, as North Korea has laid its cards on the table.

It could be said that the talks held in the past were all haunted by doubts. First, the parties concerned were not sure whether North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. Washington insisted that North Korea had uranium enrichment plans but Pyongyang denied it. Now that Pyongyang has announced that it has manufactured nuclear weapons in a formal statement, all doubts in the past can be dispelled. The coming negotiations can be focused on demanding North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. More attention can be diverted to how to make North Korea agree to give up its nuclear programs. Second, the preceding talks shelved the sensitive political issue between the United States and North Korea and attempted to reassure Pyongyang by taking pragmatic steps to solve certain problems. However, outside the six-party talks, the United States showed too many inconsistencies with its commitment to the talks, dampening the efforts to move forward. In the future, the political conflict seems impossible to be oblivious. At least, steps must be taken to lessen the hostility. It will be easier to solve the issue if both sides keep a somber mind.

Recently, the United States has taken a somewhat subdued stance toward Iran and North Korea. It has yet to be observed whether it is a tactical intermittence or a tiny policy reposition. No matter, such an attitude is conducive to the success of the negotiations.

We all tend to be interested in when the North Korea might return to negotiations. However, it would be more sensible if we explore the factors that may make the negotiations successful. When we find enough of these factors, another round of six-party talks will be in sight.

The author is with the China Institute of International Studies