Asia Expert Warns that Unless U.S. Deals Directly With N. Koreans, It Faces Choice of War or Nuclear-armed Pyongyang

Asia Expert Warns that Unless U.S. Deals Directly With N. Koreans, It Faces Choice of War or Nuclear-armed Pyongyang

April 25, 2003 1:23 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Alan D. Romberg, a former principal deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Clinton administration, warns that it is vital for the United States to deal directly with North Korea to reverse Pyongyang’s development as a nuclear power. He says that some officials in the Bush administration might favor using a military attack as a last resort to stop the North Korean nuclear program.

But, Romberg says, “this is not Iraq, and the partners we would have to be working with in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Beijing, and in Moscow don’t agree with any use of force against North Korea, and don’t believe that at least up until now the United States has done enough on the negotiating front to test the proposition that North Korea might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons for appropriate assurances.”

Romberg, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on April 24, 2003.

Bring us up to date on the crisis with North Korea, which has been brewing since last fall.

Recently there was some movement in the agreement on the terms for the meetings [this week] in Beijing with the United States, North Korea, and China. Originally, the North had insisted only on a bilateral meeting between the United States and the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the name North Korea uses], and the United States had insisted on a multilateral meeting, which basically meant including South Korea, Japan, and probably Russia.

Both sides showed some flexibility. North Korea said that these were still direct conversations, with China mainly playing a role as host, and the United States said these talks were multilateral and China played an active role, and future talks must also include South Korea and Japan at least.

So they went to the meeting, and it obviously proved to be a difficult conversation [in which North Korean officials admitted Pyongyang had nuclear weapons]. I don’t think it was ever anticipated that it would be anything else. The United States surely wanted to make clear that a resolution of the problem required the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans, in turn, wanted to make clear that resolution of the problem required credible security assurances from the United States about its intentions toward North Korea, respect for North Korea’s sovereignty— whatever that was going to turn out to mean in terms of measures by the United States— and that the United States not obstruct North Korea’s economic relations with the rest of the world.

On the surface, those conditions don’t seem irreconcilable. What’s been the problem?

The problem has been that there is enormous mistrust. The United States believes that the North Koreans cheated on the 1994 “Agreed Framework” [to freeze their nuclear program in return for aid] that had been reached with the Clinton administration. While [the North kept] frozen certain facilities, the United States says that North Korea clandestinely went about another method of obtaining nuclear materials. North Korea, I think, believed that the United States backtracked on the statements made during the Clinton administration about not having hostile intentions toward North Korea. It says that the Bush administration, through a variety of means, including statements by the president personally, was in fact expressing great hostility to North Korea.

And so, I agree that the terms both sides have laid out [are], in a sense, reconcilable, but in order to be so, both [countries] have to have faith in the other side to follow through on those terms, and not to threaten the interests of the other, and that trust has absolutely been lacking.

There have been stories in the press recently about a Pentagon memo calling for regime change in North Korea. Do many officials in Washington really believe that it would be advantageous to get rid of Kim Jong Il?

There are a number of people who think that unless there is regime change in North Korea, no agreement is going to be worth anything, that you simply can’t trust the regime. I’ve seen the stories about the memo. I don’t know what they represent, whether there was a memo, and what was intended.

Regime change can be anything from changing people to changing behavior. In any event, the president has been pretty clear in indicating that, while nothing is off the table— and I do think that there is a group that would contemplate eventually using force if nothing else works— that diplomacy is the preferred course for now and indeed a strong preference. And this reflects a lot of realities, including the fact that North Korea has the ability through its conventional weapons to wreak havoc on South Korea and kill potentially hundreds of thousands of people. This is not Iraq, and the partners we would have to be working with in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Beijing, and in Moscow don’t agree with any use of force against North Korea, and don’t believe that at least up until now the United States has done enough on the negotiating front to test the proposition that North Korea might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons for appropriate assurances.

What should the administration do to try to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program?

One thing it can’t do is to rewrite the history of the past two years, though that would be very helpful, because Washington’s hostility, which I talked about earlier, was unnecessary.

You’re referring in particular to President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address in which he called Iraq, North Korea, and Iran an “axis of evil?”

There were a lot of things. It wasn’t just the State of the Union address. It goes back to the Bush administration’s refusal to endorse the “no hostile intent” statement of the October 2000 agreement between North Korea and the United States.

My concern has been that the United States was not willing to sit down with North Korea to talk. I didn’t disagree with the administration’s point that at the end of the day any agreement has got to incorporate the interests and the participation of others in the international community. This is, as the administration has said, not an issue between the United States and North Korea. On the other hand, the problem has been largely cast in bilateral terms, and so, at a minimum, there is a need for a bilateral understanding between the U.S. and North Korea, in the context of a larger international framework, and that’s why the North has been saying it’s the United States and not the international community that threatens it. The assurances that the North Koreans need must come from the United States.

Now frankly, if I were advising North Korea, I would say, take the multilateral framework, because the kinds of assurances that the international community can provide can also be helpful to you. So far the North, even though it did meet in this trilateral setting this week, has not seen it that way.

[The administration should] talk with North Korea, make clear that there is no hostile intention, make clear that indeed their nuclear program does need to be dismantled, and that that is an absolute requirement. But to get this, instead of taking the position the administration has taken since October, which is— “You dismantle those bad things that you’ve done in violation of the 1994 accords first, and then we’ll talk about the future”--I think there needs to be some sense of what the future would look like. Dismantling the things that they have done in violation of the accords without compensation is a proper course, but it’s only going to work with the North if they have a sense that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be in their interest to do so.

The United States doesn’t want to say specifically what it will give North Korea at this point?

That’s been the situation. The United States has simply said, “Well, we had this bold vision of what the future relationship could look like and it really had a lot of good things in it, but we won’t even talk about that until you undo what you’ve now done in violation of the agreements. Then we’ll talk about it.”

In an article you co-authored recently, you said that, if things continue on the current course, America could be facing the unpalatable choice between a nuclear-armed North Korea and a war. Is that still a possibility?

I think it is. [In light of reports that North Korean officials conceded Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons], the question [becomes], are we simply going to say, “Okay, we’ll move on from here,” or are we going to say that somehow those must be dismantled or else, and what does the “or else” constitute? At some point, the United States— assuming that North Korea has nuclear weapons— has to face a decision about what to do about it. If it decides it can live with those weapons, I think that’s buying a lot of trouble. On the other hand, if the United States insists on using coercive means to eliminate them, that also means trouble. I still believe that negotiation is in fact the way to go; it needs to be tested to see if that is possible, and I think that, at this moment, is what the United States is trying to do.

Are the Chinese mediators or facilitators? In other words, do they just arrange the table or are they actually coming up with proposals of their own?

It’s probably too early to be definitive about this. North Korea, of course, has said [the Chinese are] simply hosts, and the United States has said, no, they’re there as full participants. But the fact that the foreign minister of China called Secretary of State [Colin] Powell to talk about this issue, among other things, strikes me as reflecting at least a deeper Chinese involvement than North Korea might theoretically want people to believe.

China has some major interests here, and I think it’s taken a while for [the Chinese] to figure out how to serve those interests. They’ve not wanted to put too much pressure on North Korea for fear that the North might react in unpredictable and unhelpful ways; on the other hand, they really don’t want a nuclear-armed North Korea, they really don’t want collapse of the regime, they really don’t want chaos on the peninsula. And they’ve been trying to figure out how to do this. I think that if one wanted to look at the effect of the war in Iraq, perhaps the greatest effect was in convincing China that the United States has both the capability and the will to use fairly massive military power in pursuit of the objective of making sure that what are perceived as rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction are not able to either spread them or use them.

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