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Dealing Directly with North Korea

Interviewee: Leon V. Sigal, Director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project, Social Science Research Council
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 14, 2010

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North Korea has been hosting a series of visits by American groups in the past month, including a view of uranium-enrichment facilities, in what some experts see as an effort to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula (CSMonitor). One U.S. expert recently in Pyongyang, Leon V. Sigal, says North Koreans have been "trying to get negotiations going," both bilaterally with the United States as well as in Six Party Talks, and he believes resumed talks are the best way to ease the threat from the North. He says for over twenty years, Pyongyang has favored a two-track approach: increasing the nuclear and missile threat while suggesting "ways we can negotiate out of it." Recently, he says, South Korea has posed an obstacle to negotiations, and he notes it is wrong for the United States to "pick a fight" with China over its failure to pressure North Korea.

What's going on in Korea now, as you see it?

Let's separate out what's going on between the two Koreas, and what's going on with the United States. The North has been trying to get negotiations going for a long time--and not simply bilaterally with the United States, but also in the Six Party Talks. They have a pattern they have repeated for more than twenty years, which is a kind of two-track strategy. On the one hand, they show you that they're increasing the threat by doing things on the nuclear and missile front, and on the other hand, they're suggesting ways we can negotiate out of it.

The first group was invited to come to see the North Korean plant designed to enrich uranium. That group was led by Siegfried Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories. Hecker is a person who knows what a centrifuge looks like. So they did a show-and-tell of what they have in terms of new nuclear capabilities.

This is to show they could enrich uranium for possible military applications?

That's right. That part was not a surprise. The question was: How many centrifuges do they have? Are they operating? At what pace? Essentially what they did is they showed us the potential they have to enrich uranium. Remember, it will take them time to get highly enriched uranium. And then our group arrived.

Who was in your group?

It may not work, but it is hard to imagine how you can prevent Cheonans absent a serious a peace process, and serious political and economic engagement with North Korea, which is something the previous governments in Seoul have pursued.

Myself; Joel S. Wit, a long-time State Department official who was involved in the negotiations leading up to the Agreed Framework accord of 1994; and Morton Abramowitz, who had been involved in various parts of the world as a senior diplomat and chaired two CFR reports on North Korea in the 1990s. He also co-authored a book with Stephen Bosworth, now the special envoy to North Korea, on rethinking policy toward East Asia. We talked about what the negotiating possibilities are, and we explored them in some detail with the North Koreans who would be negotiating with the United States if there ever were negotiations.

These are senior foreign ministry people?

These are senior foreign ministry people who have been doing all the negotiations with the United States since 1990. We got the sense that there are some negotiating openings here. Of course, no sooner did we leave then there was the attack on Yeonpyeong island.

Why the attack?

There has been a pernicious interaction between North Korea and South Korea since the new government came into power in Seoul. In the past you had some firefights, but they weren't what I would call strategic interactions. But the current crisis between the two Koreas began with the sinking of the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, in March, which was a deliberate decision by Kim Jong-Il, according to North Korean sources, to retaliate for an attack by South Korea on a North Korean ship in November 2009.

It's important to step back and understand this historical context, because that is lost in the noise of our understandable desire to support our ally no matter what. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's people made a fundamental error when they came into office in February 2008 and said, "We're going to show North Korea who's tough, who's boss on the Korean peninsula." There had been a possible way around the problem in what's called the West Sea. There was an agreement reached at a summit in 2007, between then-South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-Il that provided discussion for a joint fishing area and naval confidence-building measures in the contested waters of the West Sea. When Lee Myung-bak's people came in, they backed away from that agreement.

They had the nuclear test earlier.

The first nuclear test happened in 2006. The next test was in the spring of 2009. Then the North Koreans indicated they wanted to reengage. They invited [former] president Clinton to come to pick up the two American journalists who had strayed into North Korea in early August 2009; they used the funeral of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jong to send senior people down to Seoul, and invited President Lee to have a summit meeting with Kim Jong-Il. Lee, I'm told by people who know in the government, basically thought, "This is a sign that we've got them a little bit on the run, if we keep the pressure up, they'll be more pliable in negotiations." So he turned down the summit.

Then, presumably, the North Koreans gave a go-ahead for an attack on the Cheonan. Why that didn't happen until March is hard to know. In any case, the Cheonan happened, with terrible effects. Forty-six seamen, most of them draftees, were killed. The United States sent a carrier out there, but we were pretty careful. We didn't want to go into the contested waters. We did go into the West Sea, or Yellow Sea, partly to send the message to the Chinese that, "This is getting serious, please weigh in."

Then you have the South Koreans on their own deciding to have a live-fire exercise in the contested waters.

This is in November, while you're in North Korea?

This is just after. The North Koreans warn them, "Don't do it." And then you have the North Korean shelling on the island, and two civilians were killed.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula

What did they tell you when you were there?

They very much wanted to negotiate with the United States, to reengage. They say it could be bilateral or six-party. They responded to some suggestions of what might be a starting point for negotiations positively, dealing with the nuclear questions. And they were clearly open to negotiating with South Korea and with Japan both bilaterally, and in the six-party context.

It's really important here to understand the moment we're in. It's going to take time to get the centrifuges to work well enough to produce the highly enriched uranium you need for nuclear weapons. If they restarted their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, they could make a bomb's worth of plutonium even before they could make a bomb with highly enriched uranium, and they could do that at any time. That reactor has remained shut since 2007, as a result of an agreement in Six Party Talks to disable their facilities. So they kept this piece of the agreement. And people forget that in 1991, three years before the Agreed Framework, they stopped reprocessing plutonium--which is the only way they had at that point to make a nuclear weapon--and kept that reprocessing facility shut down throughout the period from 1991 to 2003, making no plutonium. Yes, they did other things to try and improve their capacity to make a weapon, such as high-explosive tests, but the main thing is they were not acquiring the means to make a nuclear weapon throughout that period. We need to find out whether there still is serious negotiating room. That's where we are right now.

Picking a fight with the Chinese over North Korea is a complete waste of energy. The Chinese are not about to coerce the collapse of North Korea. It is fundamentally not in China's interest.

The North Koreans in the past have sought a peace treaty with the United States, haven't they?

Yes, not only with the United States but with South Korea and the United States. It is very clear that the North Koreans wanted actually three-party talks, but we agreed to four-party talks to bring the Chinese in. They have been very systematically--during the entire period in the run-up to the Cheonan and after the Cheonan--emphasizing the need for a peace process. It's not a precondition, but if you want to halt their nuclear programs, you're going to have to have a peace process in parallel. And in September 2005, the six parties agreed that there would be a parallel peace process to the negotiations on nuclear weapons.

What happened to that process?

The new South Korean government came to power in February 2009 and was very reluctant to get into the peace process. And as I say, the first step of the peace process was this agreement between the North and the South to have a fishing area and confidence-building measures in the West Sea. The key to moving forward here is that we have to get South Korea behind the move. I don't have to tell people in Washington how difficult that's going to be, especially after the Cheonan and the artillery firing.

Ambassador Bosworth has only had one meeting, right?

That's right. Interestingly enough, the Bush administration had one high-level meeting in two years with the North Koreans, which broke down when the United States accused North Korea of having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. That was in October 2002. We of course had detailed talks once the Six Party Talks started in Beijing in 2003 and lasted until 2007. The Obama administration has nearly completed its second year in office with exactly one high-level meeting in December 2009.

What is it that the United States is looking for now?

The question is whether the United States is prepared to see where you can get in negotiations. How much of the nuclear and missile program will change? Can they be shut down and dismantled? In October 2000, in the last months of the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong-Il, he personally put their entire long-range missile program on the negotiating table.

Obviously you don't know until you negotiate--and there are good grounds for skepticism--but there's no other way. If we want to try and stop what's going on, we're going to have to negotiate. Similarly, if you want to prevent more Cheonans, you have to have a serious peace process. It may not work, but it is hard to imagine how you can prevent Cheonans absent a serious a peace process and serious political and economic engagement with North Korea, which is something the previous governments in Seoul have pursued. So, there are no guarantees here, but the notion that we're in a good place and we should just sit where we are, which is what we've been doing for two years, doesn't make much sense to me.

Can the Chinese produce anything for us?

Unfortunately, no. This is really a fundamental misunderstanding. We seem to want to pick a fight with China over North Korea, which seems absurd, when the key to our allies and our security in Asia is: Can we develop a cooperative relationship with China? Think about how much less secure Japan and South Korea would be if the United States and China were in confrontation in Asia.

Picking a fight with the Chinese over North Korea is a complete waste of energy. The Chinese are not about to coerce the collapse of North Korea. It is fundamentally not in China's interest. And short of that, the kinds of pressures they can put on North Korea are not going to change North Korea. But what we're really missing here is that for twenty years the North Koreans have wanted a fundamental change in relations with the United States, South Korea, and Japan. There's a hedge against China, and it's a way to reduce the military threat they face, and they can reallocate resources from the military to civil use, and get needed investment.

That was the North Korean strategy. The question is: Does it remain the strategy? There's considerable evidence that it does. To the extent that they want us, that gives us potential leverage. And we have been playing with one hand tied behind our backs by refusing to try to see whether we will get anywhere through negotiations, recognizing that the answer may be, "No."

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