Daniel A. Pinkston, a well-known expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, says he believes the six-party talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program “are dead.” Pinkston says that while the Bush administration did not overtly call an end to the negotiations, harsh statements by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent weeks “will push North Korea to withdraw from the talks.”
Pinkston advocates a last-ditch U.S. diplomatic effort before going to the U.N. Security Council to seek sanctions. He says a high-level envoy such as former President George H.W. Bush should meet directly with the North Koreans and “lay out a last, best proposal.” Such a move would serve strategic purposes, he says, because if North Korea refuses the deal, “only then could we count on some Chinese support in the Security Council, I think.”
Pinkston, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program and a Korea specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 9, 2005.
Could you describe the state of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?
The North Koreans have had an interest in nuclear weapons for quite some time. It takes a long time to develop nuclear weapons. You need political will, financial resources, and human resources, as well as infrastructure for developing and assembling them. That takes a long time, especially for a country of North Korea’s size and limited resources, and they have been developing their nuclear infrastructure for decades.
There were a number of problems after they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985. They finally signed a safeguards agreement [that set up a process of nuclear inspections] with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and ratified it in 1992, but then there were discrepancies in their declaration [of what nuclear programs and materials they had]. They announced a withdrawal from the treaty in 1993 after a series of inspections. Then, a day before their treaty withdrawal was to go into effect, they suspended their intention to withdraw and said they were engaged in bilateral negotiations with the United States. These talks led to the so-called Agreed Framework of 1994.
Under the terms of that agreement, the North Koreans were to freeze their program. IAEA inspectors went back in to monitor the freeze, and the United States agreed to form a consortium to build two light-water [nuclear] reactors that are more resistant to proliferation. The United States was to provide written security assurances that it would neither threaten nor use nuclear weapons against North Korea. The North Koreans agreed to strengthen nonproliferation norms and eventually return to the NPT. And they were to account for all their past nuclear activities before critical components were delivered to the light-water reactors.
But during the late 1990s, there were suspicions about North Korea’s getting a uranium-enrichment program and, in fact, we have since learned that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan apparently was providing technology and/or materials to the North Koreans. There were some aluminum tubes [used in centrifuges to enrich uranium to weapons-grade] that were intercepted a couple of years ago- back in 2002, I believe- as well as some other unusual procurements. With these activities, the United States became quite concerned and suspicious.
What happened when the Bush administration took office in 2001?
Following the inauguration, the Bush administration held a lengthy policy review. Dialogue [with North Korea] had been delayed or postponed for quite some time. If you recall, at the end of the Clinton administration, bilateral relations seemed to be on track for rapid and substantial improvement. [Former] Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright went to Pyongyang [in October 2000]. The first vice-chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, Jo Myong Nok, visited Washington [a few weeks later]. He’s basically one of the top-level officials, the second- or third-highest official in North Korea.
And, of course, both sides were working on a bilateral missile deal that would constrain North Korea’s missile program, and President Clinton was seriously considering a trip to Pyongyang to finalize the deal, but that did not take place before the end of his term.
The Bush administration decided to take a different approach. In October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly went to Pyongyang and confronted the North Koreans about suspicions of their enriched-uranium program. His North Korean counterparts were initially stunned by this. I think they were probably not privy to the program and initially denied it, then reported back to their superiors. And then, of course, there was an all-night discussion about what to do.
The following day, the North Koreans apparently acknowledged the existence of the program, claiming they had the right to have such a program. At that point, of course, the Agreed Framework unraveled. The United States cut off oil shipments promised under the accord. North Korea kicked out the IAEA inspectors, who had been monitoring the freeze, and disabled the cameras and other monitoring devices.
Then, in January 2003, they announced their withdrawal from the NPT.
Since then, there have been three rounds of unsuccessful six-party talks involving Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea, and the United States. Now there are reports from Washington suggesting North Korea is preparing the terrain for a possible nuclear test. Do you think a test is likely?
I’m of two minds. On the one hand, if there’s no test, they could use this to discredit U.S. intelligence [which is predicting there will be one]. On the other hand, if they have a test, it would suggest the leadership has really decided they need nuclear weapons and are ready to close the window on any kind of a deal. If they really believe they need nuclear weapons, then they must test them, because they have to be sure of the reliability of the weapon.
Why do you think North Korea wants nuclear weapons? They aren’t under any real military threat from the United States, despite North Korea’s allegations.
Most of North Korea’s leaders remember the Korean War (1950-53) and the devastation it brought. There’s also, I would argue, an incentive to exaggerate the external threat for domestic political reasons because of the division of the country. They have to differentiate themselves from the South to remain a separate political entity. One way to do that is to exaggerate the external threat, upon which all of their hardships can be blamed. The North Koreans can say to their people, “We have to do this, we have to sacrifice because the imperialist Americans are threatening a nuclear attack. They are going to invade us. So, we have to maintain our military posture and really demonstrate a nuclear weapon.” A nuclear test could be used to convince the people of a great achievement by their scientists and show them that North Korea is on an equal level with the advanced nations. So there will be a nationalistic overtone to it.
You wrote an article recently advising the United States to initiate direct talks again with the North Koreans. Is that still your view?
Yes. There are certain things that I think we should have been more flexible about. I think the six-party process was pragmatic, practical, useful, and something we should have pursued, but I don’t think [the issue of bilateral talks versus multiparty talks] is an either/or proposition. I think the talks complement each other. And there are a number of issues I would think, from an American perspective, I would want to talk with them bilaterally about without other parties there. I think the six-party and direct talks can complement each other. And it would show the United States’ flexibility as a superpower and its willingness to go the extra mile. If I was in a policy position, I would entertain those avenues, but there are other things I would not be flexible on at all, and that’s the need for monitoring, inspections, verification, and so forth.
I would have to be completely satisfied or have a very high level of confidence on the complete abandonment of the North Korean program. On other things, I think I would be willing to be flexible, as far as working to lift economic sanctions, establishing diplomatic recognition, and granting some kind of security assurance. I would be willing to be quite flexible on those if I could be confident I could get them to abandon their nuclear weapons.
The United States did have a private talk with the North Koreans during those last six-party talks in August 2004 which it made a proposal for various incentives if the North Koreans stopped their nuclear program first. That was unacceptable to the North Koreans.
I think if you go back and look at the proposal, it was not credible. There was a time limit placed on the proposal- something like three months, which seemed to very conveniently fit the electoral cycle in the United States. North Korea was to abandon its programs, commit to a freeze, and then submit to an inventory of their program within three months, which I think was unrealistic.
What is the scenario for bringing this to the U.N. Security Council? Will a nuclear test lead to a Security Council action?
I think so, but the problem is I’m not convinced there would be any Security Council resolution. Military options are out of the question and any kind of economic sanctions, I think, would be quite limited. I don’t believe China is prepared to enforce wide-ranging, economic sanctions. Now, I think they might be in agreement with some type of very, very targeted PSI-type [Proliferation Security Initiative] action to block shipments through China or through the region of nuclear-related or weapons of mass destruction-related materials and technologies. The Chinese might even agree to a conventional arms embargo.
But, as far as the real areas that would hurt North Korea, particularly food and fuel, I don’t think the Chinese are going to apply sanctions because that’s a humanitarian issue and they’re not interested in destabilizing the regime. Even if North Korea has nuclear weapons and has a test, China is still interested in stability. So, people in Washington who are talking about an embargo or ratcheting up the pressure to try and force the collapse of North Korea are out of touch with what’s possible. I’m just not convinced at all that China or South Korea is going to play that game, because it’s not in their interest to do so.
Should the United States just ignore North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? In other words, is the United States making too much of this? The United States has the nuclear capability to devastate North Korea if they use a nuclear weapon against an ally of ours.
We would have to fall back to a deterrence and containment strategy. There’s really not much else you can do. But the problem I have is our failure to be more proactive, our reliance on the Chinese, and our refrain that the Chinese aren’t doing enough run the risk of really marginalizing the United States in the region.
If North Korea gets nuclear weapons, it’s not in the interests of other countries in the region. It destabilizes the region and is a security threat to everyone. But what could happen is that North Korea could carry out this test and continue to increase their nuclear capability, and the perception will grow in East Asia that the United States did not do enough to prevent this. East Asians will argue the United States didn’t put a credible offer on the table. A lot of people in East Asia believe the United States has exacerbated the situation, and if they begin to blame the United States, that causes problems for U.S. interests in the region.
Today in Moscow, the South Korean and Chinese leaders issued a joint statement urging North Korea to come back to the six-nation talks. Do you think there is any likelihood of North Korea actually coming back to the talks?
I think the likelihood is low. I think the talks are dead. I think the Bush administration pulled the plug on the talks about a week and a half ago. There were sharp statements by Bush and Secretary of State Rice. All of that rhetoric will push North Korea to withdraw from the talks. So, I think the Bush administration basically pulled the plug on it, but they couldn’t say we’re not interested in this diplomatic process anymore. They had to do something to make it impossible for North Korea to continue the process.
What did Bush say?
He called Kim Jong-Il a tyrant. There were disparaging remarks.
In the absence of six-nation talks, is there any diplomatic alternative?
I’m not in government, so I don’t know what’s going on in Washington, but as an outsider, I would suggest we take some new initiative. It would seem to me some kind of high-level envoy should make a visit or have a meeting. I am thinking of someone like former President [George H.W.] Bush, or some high-level State Department official, to meet and lay out a last, best proposal and see if some compromise is possible. What the United States has to do is present something where it is seen as really bending over backwards to make a proposal that North Korea should accept. And if North Korea refuses such a proposal, only then could we count on some Chinese support in the Security Council, I think.