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'Peace' Feelers Toward Pyongyang

Prepared by: Esther Pan
May 24, 2006


On May 17, the New York Times reported the United States is considering opening talks with North Korea on a formal peace treaty while negotiations on its nuclear program are still underway. The next day, officials confirmed that the Bush administration is considering the change, but only if North Korea returns to multilateral talks, as this CFR Background Q&A explains.

A formal peace treaty is a longtime demand from the North Korean side, and, in fact, the United States has not rejected the idea in the past, but has insisted on nuclear disarmament as a prerequisite. Now, the prerequisite appears to be in question. If such a policy shift takes place, it would be a departure from the Bush administration's former demand that North Korea completely and verifiably give up its nuclear weapons program before gaining any concessions, including bilateral talks. The U.S. insistence on this point, combined with Pyongyang's position that it must receive concessions before giving up its nuclear program, contributed to the glacial pace of the six-party talks over the last few years, described in this CFR Background Q&A. North Korea's nuclear status is another headache on the world map for the Bush administration as it wrestles with Iran's intransigence over its own nuclear program and the continuing chaos in Iraq.

The Christian Science Monitor says the move could signal a policy shift away from "regime change" toward negotiation with rogue nuclear powers. In a Washington Post op-ed, Henry Kissinger writes, "Focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearization confuses the issue." He encourages the United States to look instead to diplomatic efforts when dealing with the nuclear issue in both North Korea and Iran. Others are encouraging a similar move. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung urged North Korea and the United States to return to six-party talks (Reuters), saying Pyongyang should give up its nuclear weapons program and, in return, gain U.S. security guarantees and an end to economic sanctions.

Writing in Strategic Insight, the magazine of the Monterey Naval Postgraduate Institute, Edward Olsen says U.S. policy toward North Korea in recent years has been less than effective. "The United States has not devised the means on its own to induce North Korea to truly abandon its nuclear weapons agenda," he writes, advocating that U.S. policy move toward the active engagement chosen by South Korea and China. Seoul, long a U.S. ally, is defying Washington's approach on North Korea and choosing a more assertive role in the region, as explained in this CFR Background Q&A.

The Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies offers an analysis of North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities (PDF). It says that, as yet, Pyongyang is not able to deliver nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles, but could possibly reach Japan with nuclear-equipped medium-range missiles. David Albright and Kevin O'Neill detail in their book Solving the North Korea Nuclear Puzzle how "serious misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and false expectations have often plagued the U.S.-North Korean relationship." Paul Kerr offers a timeline of U.S.-North Korean nuclear negotiations in Arms Control Today.

A PINR brief says only the United States and Japan, who have the most to lose from a nuclear-armed North Korea, are showing any urgency about resolving the diplomatic standoff. And Fred Kaplan of Slate notes that the nuclear energy assistance deal Europe, the United States, and Russia are currently offering Iran is very similar to the one the Clinton administration made to North Korea ten years ago—which kept Pyongyang from building nukes for a decade.

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