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The Downward Korean Spiral

Authors: The Honorable Morton I. Abramowitz, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation, and James T. Laney
September 9, 2001
Chosun Ilbo

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The hopes of the historic June 2000 North-South Summit in Pyongyang have dimmed. Despite Nobel Prize winning South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's generosity and frequent overtures to the North, Pyongyang has shut down the reconciliation process with South Korea and abandoned implementation of most summit agreements. For more than a year it has refused to offer a date for the return visit to which Kim Jong Il publicly committed himself.

In South Korea attitudes toward the North and Kim Dae-jung's management of his sunshine policy have hardened and his credibility has suffered severely.

The Bush administration also made its contribution to the increasing stagnation. It initially conveyed skepticism about the utility of dealing with the North at all. More recently, Secretary of State Powell offered in Seoul to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions, and his reaffirmation of a Clinton-era communique addressed many North Korean concerns. But there remains a noticeable lack of consensus within the administration on how to engage North Korea at what level, with what priorities, and what to put on the table. The word normalization has dropped from our vocabulary.

North Korea not surprisingly has sought to blame mostly successfully— this declining situation on the Bush administration and to convey the sense that it would not deal with Seoul until the Americans resumed a serious dialogue. In fact, Pyongyang backtracked in its dealings with Seoul even before Bush took office.

Yet there is urgency to restoring diplomatic momentum with North Korea. In South Korea time is running out on President Kim. He has eighteen months left in his tenure, and next year South Korea will be awash with Presidential campaigning. Unless the return summit occurs this year, it will get caught up in election year politics, making unlikely serious progress on difficult issues.

Retrogression also is dangerous for the United States. Pyongyang continues to develop long range missiles and export dangerous missile technology to the volatile Middle East. Its own nuclear weapons program is frozen, but not yet fully known and dismantled. And while the sunshine policy has significantly reduced tensions on the peninsula, that could quickly change since the military confrontation that keeps U.S. troops in Korea is far from resolved.

Even in a cooperative environment, progress would not come easily. The Bush Administration inherited the difficult challenge of implementing the 1994 Agreed Framework that froze North Korea's known nuclear weapons program. Similarly reaching accord on a now suspended effort to curb Pyongyang's ballistic missile development is equally problematic.

The nuclear deal was structured such that its most difficult aspects were deferred. Before the nuclear components of light water reactors promised under the 1994 accord are delivered, North Korea must come clean about the plutonium it produced before the accord. That is, it must grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to determine that. This process of reconstructing North Korea¡¯ nuclear history could take 3-4 years. But the Agreed Framework does not specify when North Korea must allow the IAEA to begin the process. Thus North Korea could bring the whole process to a halt and resume dangerous saber-rattling a la 1994.

The challenge to the administration is find a way to get North Korea to cooperate. One idea is to offer to provide badly needed electricity in return for additional commitments to allow the IAEA in sooner, to remove process fuel rods that contain potential bomb material, and to agree on new IAEA safeguards. Curbing North Korea's missile program is also complicated, as it involves export and internal controls. But as Pyongyang continues to export missile technology to the Middle East, it is in U.S. interest to quickly reach a satisfactory arrangement to shut down such exports.

These dangerous issues as well as the fundamental military competition on the peninsula demand full-time, high level attention. Congress mandated Clinton to appoint a Senior Coordinator, a move which proved successful in managing the policy within the Executive branch, with Congress, and in improving the critical job of policy coordination with Seoul and Tokyo. Bush would be wise to appoint such a person to help flesh out the specifics of policy, forge consensus, and implement policy.

A more focused, pro-active U.S. stance could be a catalyst for progress and would also reassure a skeptical South Korean public of our genuine interest in improving North-South relations. The core problem, however, remains North Korea's reluctance to reform and open its country as have China and Vietnam. Instead it has so far chosen to experiment at the margins while muddling through on the kindness of strangers food, fuel and hard currency -- while its people suffer badly. Until Pyongyang decides to change in earnest, progress is likely to be limited. But within those limits, the United States can advance its interests in stopping missile development, missile exports and any nuclear weapons program by a well-considered policy based on reciprocal benefits.

Nobody said it is easy dealing with North Korea but the stakes are too large not to try. In any event it's pretty bad when a state like North Korea beats you in the world opinion game.

(The authors, both former Ambassadors to Thailand and Korea respectively, are co-chairs of the Council on Foreign Relations' independent task force on Korea.)