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Date With a Dictator: Negotiating with North Korea is an unattractive option - but the only good one

August 17, 2003
The Boston Globe

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LAST WEEK, THE BUSH administration achieved a diplomatic victory when it succeeded in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table on its own terms. The North dropped its longstanding demand for one-on-one negotiations with the United States, agreeing instead to six-way talks to discuss its nuclear weapons program. The talks are now set to take place later this month in Beijing, with place-cards for China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

North Korea's newfound willingness to sit down with its neighbors represents a concession–and in that sense it is an apparent vindication of the Bush administration's approach to the problems posed by Kim Jong Il. The administration maintains that the involvement of neighboring countries can help persuade North Korea to shut down its nuclear program, and that six countries can verify Pyongyang's pledges better than one.

But it remains to be seen whether the administration's insistence on regional talks has been worth the gamble. By refusing to speak directly with the North Koreans, it has delayed the beginning of negotiations, leaving Pyongyang free to intensify its nuclear program and possibly reprocess enough plutonium for as many as a half-dozen new nuclear weapons since inspectors were kicked out last year.

In many respects, the administration's stance on the size of the table has disguised its own internal debate, which is not about how to structure any talks with North Korea but about whether to pursue serious negotiations at all.

On one side is Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard L. Armitage, who before returning to government in 2001 headed a study proposing a grand bargain with the North. The study suggested trading US security guarantees and international investment for tougher restrictions on North Korea's weapons programs–essentially the policy that the Clinton administration pursued.

On the other side is Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his allies, including John R. Bolton, the undersecretary for arms control and international security, who has been the administration's leading critic of an engagement policy. Last month, Bolton restated his opposition to offering any incentives to Kim Jong Il: "To give in to his extortionist demands," Bolton told an audience in Seoul, "would only encourage him, and perhaps more ominously, other would-be tyrants in the world."

(In return, the North Korean foreign ministry, with its usual diplomatic discretion, denounced Bolton as "human scum" and a "bloodsucker," and demanded that he be excluded from the Beijing talks. Armitage announced that the United States would make its own decisions about its negotiating team but added that Bolton, who had not taken part in earlier talks with the North, would not go this time either.)

Rumsfeld and Bolton have succeeded in changing the size of the negotiating table. But in the bigger picture, the decision to go to Beijing could be a victory for the Powell approach. Recent reports suggest the administration is considering offering incentives to the North, including a written no-attack pledge (which would be short of the formal treaty sought by Pyongyang), a loosening of restrictions on international aid by the World Bank or other donors, and even a variety of economic carrots. In exchange, the North would disclose the full extent of its nuclear program and freeze all of its nuclear activities–including its clandestine uranium enrichment program, which the North acknowledged last year after being confronted by the United States, prompting the current crisis.

If the administration attempts to strike such a bargain in Beijing, it may further divide the Bush camp. Conservatives inside and outside the administration will point out, with some justice, that the spectacle of American leaders making deals with maniacal dictators like Kim Jong Il is not a pretty one. They will reassert the administration's own previous position that the United States shouldn't even consider offering any deals before the North first verifiably dismantles its nuclear program.

The Clinton administration navigated a similar political minefield when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000 for the first-ever meeting of a US official with Kim Jong Il. The purpose of the trip was to curb the North's long-range ballistic missiles, which directly threatened Japan and South Korea and which it was selling to states in the Middle East and South Asia. Albright's trip succeeded in securing a pledge from Kim to permanently stop the flight-testing of ballistic missiles. Even so, a small firestorm greeted her when she returned.

The pictures of Kim standing side by side with an American secretary of state were unavoidable. But the images of the extravaganza at Pyongyang's May Day stadium were something else. Albright and her delegation had agreed to attend a performance at the Pyongyang circus. Instead, they were treated to the unwelcome surprise of 100,000 performers dancing in lockstep, and a climactic display of thousands of spectators flipping their placards in synchrony to form an image of the Taepodong long-range missile that was infamously test-launched over Japan and into the Pacific in 1998. Seeking to find a neutral word to describe the stadium spectacle, Albright told reporters it was "amazing." She added that "these glasses I have on are not rose-colored."

The fact that Kim told Albright, in their stadium box, that the test-launch would be the first and last did not prevent unflattering news accounts of the secretary's mission. Upon her return, an editorial in the Washington Post said the trip "diminished US credibility." But Albright understood the sensitivity of such a trip, and was nonetheless prepared to take the political heat. Talks had reached the point where only a trip by the secretary of state could maintain the momentum.

Now the Bush administration will be put to the test. If it does the right thing and enters into serious negotiations, some will inevitably accuse it of coddling a dictator. Talking to Kim may dredge up bad Cold War memories of clinking glasses with tyrants whose continued rule was perceived to serve American interests. But the Beijing talks will not be an effort to prop up a bad guy, but to reduce the danger his regime and his weapons of mass destruction pose to the North Korean people and the world until he is gone from the scene.

Certainly, the arguments for negotiating seriously with the North were and remain compelling. Seoul, a city of 10 million, and many of the US troops still stationed near the DMZ are within range of North Korean artillery. Pyongyang has exported missiles and technology to Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.

In the absence of negotiations, North Korea has evicted nuclear inspectors and become the first country to leave the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Several thousand nuclear fuel rods, securely stored and monitored since 1994, are now unaccounted for. North Korea says it has nearly completed reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium, although US officials say they cannot confirm this claim. At this moment, North Korea may have a small but significant store of nuclear weapons, and the capability to steadily produce more.

Denunciations of Kim Jong Il are certainly welcome. The Dear Leader is an odious dictator if ever there was one. And if tough talk helps to create political space for serious negotiations, that is all to the good. But the simple refusal to negotiate with dictators is too easy. This administration, like the one before it, must be prepared to withstand political criticism and test the North's seriousness at the negotiating table if there is to be any chance of turning back the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programs.


Lee Feinstein is director for strategic policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in the second Clinton administration.