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A Letter from the Independent Task Force on Korea to the Administration

November 26, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


November 26, 2002

Dear Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Dr. Rice:

We are writing as co-chairs of the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored independent task force on Korea. Since 1997 our task force has followed closely developments on the Korean peninsula and US policy there. We hope the views expressed here might be of use in the administration’s policy deliberations.

Another war on the peninsula would be catastrophic, particularly for South Korea, but we cannot tolerate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and the violation of its agreements. Thus we applaud the firm but measured response to North Korea’s secret pursuit of a HEU capability. The administration has sent a clear message to Pyongyang that it must abandon its nuclear weapons programs and that there is no reward for violating four agreements. The United States has acted in close cooperation with its allies and China and avoided threats of war and the creation of a major crisis. We believe that both the recent trilateral communique with Japan and South Korea and the subsequent agreement in KEDO were important steps forward in coordinating the allied position. We also believe that continuing ROK and Japanese discussions with North Korea can be useful at this difficult time.

Rolling back North Korea’s nuclear programs and achieving effective verification will not be easy:

--The ROK will be reluctant to pursue tough measures such as ending contacts or cutting off all aid. The next President of the ROK, when he takes office in February of next year, may harden his country’s approach in dealing with the North, but he too will pursue an engagement strategy and will be wary on putting heavy pressure on the North for fear of creating a military crisis. We need to proceed carefully with the ROK, given the potential danger that widespread criticism of US policy and anti-Americanism there will increase and undermine our long-term security posture in Korea and the rest of Asia. Japan is very sensitive to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and would likely be willing to deny North Korea economic assistance, but it too can be expected to back away from ending contacts and even more so from any military confrontation. And although China shares our concern on North Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons and may be brought around to calibrating its aid, we do not believe it is prepared to use economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Its higher priority is to prevent North Korea from collapsing. Our efforts to peacefully denuclearize North Korea require maximum allied coordination.

--The tough posture of the administration has caught the North’s attention and changed the nature of the dialogue between our countries. In recent years the North, we believe, has become more vulnerable, not only because of the drain of its vast military but also because of its increasing dependence on foreign assistance. Faced with a badly deteriorating economy and declining relative conventional military capabilities it has finally taken initial steps to reform its economy, but the success of the reform program is heavily dependent on the expectation of receiving sizeable amounts of foreign aid, particularly from Japan. Whatever its increased economic vulnerabilities, North Korea has publicly reiterated both its fear that the US will turn to it after getting rid of Saddam Hussein and its desire for a non-aggression pact with the US. Indeed its most recent statements seem even desperate on this score.

-- If Pyongyang is genuinely concerned about a military attack—despite repeated presidential statements that the US will not attack—it is hard to believe the North will give up the pursuit of a greater nuclear deterrent without direct security assurances from the US. (North Korean leaders realize that aid is now out of the question, but they do not want the US preventing them from getting aid from other countries.) Moreover, despite both its weakened system and bargaining position, we should not assume that North Korea will not heighten the rhetoric or raise tensions, particularly if it feels it is not making any progress in obtaining such assurances and continued external assistance. It could also reprocess the spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor still in the country if the allied side renounces the Agreed Framework.

We take America’s most basic aims on the peninsula to be preserving the peace, ending the North Korean nuclear and missile threats and ultimately its conventional one, and maintaining strong alliance cohesion. The following are possible strategies for achieving these ends:

--The first is to isolate North Korea, to seek to deny it external aid, and to ultimately squeeze the regime until it radically changes or implodes. However desirable regime change would be, as a practical option it would have serious limitations in its ability to achieve that outcome. We would be without critically important support from the South Korean and Japanese governments, and major efforts to secure that support would undermine their domestic political standing and thus our relations with them. Moreover, any effort to strangle the North would be opposed by China, which has the economic wherewithal to ensure the survival of the Pyongyang regime. This approach would not prevent North Korea from pursuing all its nuclear options, including the reprocessing of its spent fuel and marketing the products to other states or even terrorist groups. And it could more easily lead to a serious military confrontation.

--The second option—containment— keeps our dealings with the North to a minimum (e.g. no senior delegations to Pyongyang) until it takes demonstrable steps to end its nuclear programs and submit to effective verification. It could also serve as a holding approach, leaving greater room for change when circumstances warrant. This option requires continuing pressure on South Korea to end or at least reduce contacts and aid, and it calls for the allies and China to make it clear to North Korea that there is no possibility for serious talks with the US until the North takes real steps to restore its credibility. Similarly the US would carry out a sustained campaign in other countries and the UN against North Korea’s nuclear efforts. This option could, however, permit the continued delivery of food aid as a humanitarian measure. Containment carries less possibility of a crisis than the first option and would be probably more acceptable to allies—though even this strategy would be palatable to them for only a limited period at most. Like the first option it would not prevent North Korea from acquiring much greater nuclear capabilities. Some also fear that over time the North will take threatening steps to get our attention, but there are serious constraints to their doing this, particularly Chinese opposition.

--The third option—limited engagement—would have the US undertake negotiations with North Korea toward an agreement which would end all its nuclear programs and provide the necessary verification in exchange for normalization of relations and security assurances for Pyongyang. (As for a non-aggression pact, if North Korea means by that a commitment not to attack, that should pose little difficulty; if it means also the removal of US troops from Korea, the proposal would be an obvious non-starter.) Any agreement would aim at meeting both countries’ requirements and, if successful, permit further discussions to deal with our other concerns about North Korea.

In the absence of serious steps by North Korea to end its HEU program the allied decision to suspend oil deliveries rather than terminate the Agreed Framework makes good sense. We do not want to preclude the possibility of North Korea coming back into compliance, and we want to try to preserve its adherence to those provisions clearly in our interest like its commitment to not reprocess its spent fuel. Thus we would also urge that the President have the flexibility to proceed, as he sees fit, in providing incentives when circumstances warrant. Any legislation must allow for presidential waiver.

Our view is that US policy on this issue of such importance to us and our close Asian allies should have bipartisan support here and the support of our allies abroad. We do not believe such support can be gained by the first option. We also believe the first option can easily produce a crisis for which we have no satisfactory answer. But we should not rule out the use of force to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities. If, however, North Korea demonstrates a serious effort to abandon its HEU program, we should engage it on a high level about what needs to be done to carry that out, a discussion that could lead to talks on other problems. Otherwise we recommend that we proceed with the containment option as best as possible until a newly elected ROK president takes office in February 2003. That would be a logical time to review all our policy options including the cutoff of all allied aid and to reach a common position with Japan and South Korea. We believe we would win strong support from these allies only if we make it clear that we are prepared to move ahead at an appropriate time to discuss the arrangement set forth in the third option. In the end we will first have to pursue a diplomatic option to meet our concerns and secure our basic interests.

One last point: the success of North Korea’s HEU program, as we understand it, is still some time off, but that would not be the case if North Korea proceeded to reprocess its spent fuel. Should they do so—and it would run up against China’s likely strong opposition—that would indeed precipitate a real crisis. Whatever we and our allies do to deal with this development, it would be insupportable to engage in a military action without showing a willingness to first talk with the North.

We hope these comments are helpful. The members of the task force are listed on the following page. The thrust of these comments but not necessarily each element is supported by most members of the task force. A small number were opposed or were not available or held professional positions that preclude them from taking a stance.

Morton Abramowitz

James Laney

State: The Honorable Richard L. Armitage
Defense: The Honorable Paul D. Wolfowitz

Independent Task Force Reports
Testing North Korea: The Next Stage in U.S. and ROK Policy (September 2001)

U.S. Policy Toward North Korea: A Second Look (July 1999)


Morton Abramowitz*
Richard Allen
Edward Baker*
Daniel Bob*
Stephen Bosworth*
Kurt Campbell
Victor Cha*
Jerome Cohen*
Stephen Costello
James Delaney*
William Drennan
Robert Dujarric*
Robert Einhorn*
L. Gordon Flake*
Robert Gallucci
William Gleysteen*
Donald Gregg
Morton Halperin*
Eric Heginbotham*
Frank Januzzi*
Arnold Kanter*
Charles Kartman*
Richard Kessler*
Sukhan Kim*
James Laney*
Kenneth Lieberthal*
James Lilley
Winston Lord
K. Namkung*
Marcus Noland*
Don Oberdorfer*
Kongdan Oh*
Mitchell Reiss*
Robert RisCassi*
Alan Romberg*
Jason Shaplen*
Wendy Sherman*
Stephen Solarz
Helmut Sonnenfeldt
Nancy Tucker
William Watts*
Joel Wit*
Donald Zagoria*

The Century Foundation
The Richard V. Allen Co.
Harvard University
Council on Foreign Relations
Tufts University
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Georgetown University
Council on Foreign Relations

Institute for Defense Analysis
U.S. Institute of Peace
Hudson Institute
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs
Georgetown University
The Brookings Institution
The Korea Society
Open Society Institute
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
The Scowdroft Group
Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs
Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld
Emory University
University of Michigan Business School
American Enterprise Institute
International Rescue Committee
University of California, Berkley
Institute for International Economics
The Johns Hopkins University
Institute for Defense Analysis
College of William and Mary
L-3 Communications Corporation
Henry L. Stimson Center
Pacific Century Cyberworks
The Albright Group L. L. C.
Solarz Associates
The Brookings Institution
Georgetown University
Potomac Associates
Center for Strategic and International Studies
National Committee on American Foreign Policy

* Signatory

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