O’Hanlon: Success at North Korea Talks Uncertain

August 20, 2003

Interview
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.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, a leading expert on North Korea, says it’s unclear if there will be a diplomatic breakthrough when delegations from the United States, North Korea, Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia meet August 27 in Beijing. A senior fellow in foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution, O’Hanlon sees some “glimmers of hope” that the North Korea nuclear crisis might begin to ease: Pyongyang’s decision to drop its demand for one-on-one talks and Washington’s apparent willingness to offer the North economic incentives. “We started with a situation where the chances for success were well under 10 percent,” he says. “Now the chances are improving. But whether they are 5 percent or 25 percent, I have no way of evaluating.”

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The co-author with Mike Mochizuki of the forthcoming “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal with a Nuclear North Korea,” O’Hanlon was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 19, 2003.

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What are the chances of progress at the Beijing meeting?

It’s very hard to evaluate, but I think the easiest way to begin answering that question is to start with the positions that each side held, let’s say, a couple of months ago.

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What were those positions?

North Korea held one of two possible beliefs. One was that it needed its nuclear weapons to avoid being the next target of pre-emption by the Bush administration, the next member of the “axis of evil” to fall. [The other was] that, because nuclear weapons were the one valuable commodity it had to trade, it had better get a very good price for giving them up.

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Either one of those positions seemed entirely inconsistent with the Bush administration’s very clear view that the North Koreans had to make concessions first and come clean on the nuclear weapons issue, agree to freeze [their program], and resume the dismantlement process, as they agreed to do in the 1994 Agreed Framework deal that North Korea had struck with the United States, [South Korea, and Japan].

The Bush administration was demanding all the concessions. North Korea was almost certain to [reject] that kind of deal, regardless of [how one interprets] its possible motives for keeping nuclear weapons. It looked like a deal was headed nowhere. Right now, I [cannot say] the chances [of a resolution] have improved very much, but there are two glimmers of hope.

Which are?

One, of course, is that the North Koreans agreed to the multilateral talks, giving up their demand for one-on-one talks with the United States. We do not yet know why they changed their position— or whether they will be conciliatory and serious [at the Beijing talks]. The other positive development is that [there is] at least a sense that the Bush administration is thinking through its position and trying to figure out what additional inducements it might be able to offer without running the risk of giving in to what it sees as blackmail or extortion.

I have no way of judging whether administration officials will come up with an answer they are happy with and that impresses the North Koreans. We started with a situation where the chances for success were well under 10 percent. Now the chances are improving. But whether they are 5 percent or 25 percent, I have no way of evaluating.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, you wrote that North Korea badly wants economic help. Could economic hardship have helped propel Pyongyang to agree to the multilateral talks?

Yes. The North Koreans have such a failed economy that the question of reforming their economy has to be addressed. They may think they can find a way to extort a certain amount of cash out of [other nations] and deal with their problems year by year. That may be their preferred approach, but if [other countries] give in to that, [they] are giving in to a pattern of behavior that has developed in the last few years, in which [the North Koreans] repeatedly seek to offer up weapons programs in the hope of being bought out by the international community.

I don’t think you want to perpetuate that. [The North Koreans] are almost guaranteed to [revert] to that behavior unless you get them to reform their economy, which is undergoing a slow collapse. It’s been going on for more than a decade. Gross domestic product is half of what it used to be. The economic reforms of the past are not working, and [the North Koreans] need to find some new ways of engaging with the outside world. They just are not doing so. So, whether the North Koreans themselves have recognized it or not, [the economy] is the underlying problem. It is what drives them to use extortion as their only tool, apart from counterfeiting or drug trafficking, for raising hard currency. It is what guarantees there will be more crises unless that underlying cause is addressed.

Can the Bush administration “give in” on this, or does there have to be complete nuclear disarmament before it makes some economic arrangement?

It has to be done in conjunction with resolution of the nuclear issue. I don’t believe you can leave the nuclear issue unaddressed. Nor do I believe you can focus just on that. It has to be part of a broader package. If you leave the nuclear issue unaddressed, then you are ignoring the No. 1 threat to U.S. security. By contrast, if you leave the economic reform problem unaddressed, you are almost guaranteeing another crisis when the North Koreans decide they need to extort money yet again.

The only way to do this is to bring the whole thing together— whether you make this all part of one piece of paper that is signed by the two sides and implemented simultaneously, or whether you have a series of agreements like the United States and the Soviet Union had in the early period of detente. You can be flexible. But the economics, the conventional forces, and the nuclear issue all should be part of the agenda from the beginning. And finally, you need to get some kind of human rights dialogue on the agenda, because the North Koreans need to be forced to reform this terrible part of their record as well. It doesn’t mean you can expect democracy in North Korea anytime soon, but you need to move in a direction in which you at least get the kind of human rights dialogue you have had with the Chinese in the last couple of decades.

What role is China playing in these talks?

China is critical. China has to be the No. 1 country showing North Korea how to reform its economy and also convincing the North Korean [leadership] they can reform without losing power. Presumably, [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il is not going to do anything to increase the risk that he is going to lose his position or be driven from office or be killed.

The Chinese have experience in doing economic reform within the construct of a Communist Party that holds on to power even as the reform goes on. That’s one aspect [of their influence], and that’s the aspect we try to emphasize in our forthcoming book. The other aspect, of course, is that China is North Korea’s only treaty ally. North Korea and its refugees create huge problems for the Chinese. If there were a war in Korea, it would be terrible for the Chinese because, of course, they would have to worry about American forces coming up to their border [as they did in the Korean War], and [there] would [be] huge [regional] spillover effects. South Korea’s economy would be severely hurt, and that’s a major trading partner for China.

China has very specific reasons of its own that are, in the end, similar to [the U.S. reasons], for wanting this crisis to be resolved. Beijing must be involved and on the same [page as] the United States. There’s one last point. If the reform agenda fails, China has to be involved in any coercive policy toward North Korea, because China, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, [would have] to agree to impose sanctions on North Korea. You would need China to shut down cross-border trade, if you were going to go that route. You would need China to prevent the North Koreans from smuggling nuclear materials out of their country through airplanes that fly over Chinese airspace.

In your opinion, do the North Koreans have nuclear weapons?

I would have to guess, yes. They certainly have had enough material to make a couple in the last 10 years. And people who have material tend to be capable of fashioning it into at least a crude device. It may be a device that is to bulky to be transported by missile. It may not even be easy to transport by fighter jet. It might be the kind of thing you would have to move by truck, ship, or large airplane. But my guess is that, just as the Americans built an atomic bomb in a fairly crude way back in the Manhattan Project in World War II, the North Koreans, if they have the plutonium, which we have to assume they do, could just pack it with lots of explosives and use brute force to create a bomb that would detonate, if and when they chose to set it off.

If the dialogue fails, what kind of coercive measures do you think the Bush administration might take, and what is the likelihood of a military conflict?

The likelihood of a military conflict is probably in the range of 10 percent to 50 percent. But there are other things the Bush administration could try as well. For instance, the United States could intensify what [the administration] calls the Proliferation Security Initiative, a policy that has been put into effect in the last few months. Under it, the United States, with its allies, tries to use domestic laws in various countries to make it hard for the North Koreans to do illicit things with their shipping. For instance, if they are trying to smuggle drugs and they have a ship in a certain port in Australia, the Australians might do selective inspections of any North Korean ships coming into their coastal waterways.

This sort of thing is now being done by a number of countries. South Korea and China [have yet] to go along with this, however. So, [the United States] could try to get those two countries aboard this sort of initiative. [It] could also place economic sanctions on North Korea, essentially the formal type of U.N. embargo that was being discussed in 1994 before the Agreed Framework.

Does the United States have the capability to fight another war while so many troops are in Iraq?

Yes. But we have to recognize there are big downsides. First, you could do a pre-emptive military strike against the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, where used nuclear fuel is being reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium. Obviously, we have the ability to do that even with our forces in Iraq. Our Air Force and Navy are not very heavily taxed right now by the Iraq mission. The question is, what will the North Koreans do in response, especially when you know that they already have a couple of plutonium bombs hidden away somewhere, not at Yongbyon. You are not going to be able to totally denuclearize them, even with such a strike, and they have the ability to retaliate by striking out at Seoul or in some other way.

So, there are pros and cons. But you could destroy the nuclear infrastructure at Yongbyon. That is the “big stuff.” That’s the stuff that has the potential to produce dozens of bombs a year.

That military option has big risks. The other military option, of course, is all-out war. A member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told me last week at a non-attribution briefing that this is a live option. [The United States] recently conducted exercises confirming that [it has] the forces to handle a war should there be an imminent crisis or conflict in Korea. That makes sense; virtually the entire Marine Corps and half the army are currently outside Iraq. On the other hand, [a war in Korea] would exhaust the military, and virtually the entire military would have fought in one war or the other— or even both, in a very short period of time. And even more to the point, you would get a lot of people killed.

And South Korea’s policy is anti-war?

Certainly right now it is. But again, part of the reason for trying this grand bargain strategy is we think that, if it fails, you will be in a much better position to tell your allies that we tried diplomacy, but it did not work, [so] we have no choice but to try a more coercive or even a military approach. That is part of the logic behind our proposal, which may, at first blush, look like a very conciliatory initiative toward a reprehensible regime. But in point of fact, we are trying to force regime change upon the North Koreans without regime change per se, and if it fails or they reject it, then coercive measures may be more feasible, because our regional partners may recognize that there is no choice.

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