Romberg: A ’Reasonable Shot’ a U.S.-North Korea Deal Will Emerge

August 6, 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.

Alan D. Romberg, a former principal deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Clinton administration and an expert on Asian affairs, says he believes that there is “a reasonable shot” the North Korea nuclear crisis can be resolved at six-nation talks scheduled to begin in September. A settlement, he says, would have North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program in return for security guarantees from the United States.

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He says that North Korea’s desire for economic help can be satisfied by South Korea and Japan, which will participate in the talks with Russia, China, North Korea, and the United States. Romberg, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., also says, “I remain convinced that, while most people would agree that it would probably be desirable to replace the current [North Korean] regime, it is not a viable policy.”

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Romberg was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 6, 2003.

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What is the significance of September’s six-nation meeting?

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The immediate significance is that we will finally be sitting down with the North Koreans to talk about the various issues the two sides have. That includes both what each side is looking for the other to do, and the sequence in which things will happen.

On process, an important element in moving ahead has been the willingness of the United States, contrary to its recent position, to commit to some kind of bilateral conversation with the North in the context of the six-party talks. I don’t think that should be viewed as a concession. It should be viewed as a common-sense approach. But it is an important key to the breakthrough on convening [this] session.

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On the substantive side, since the announcement [of the meeting], the North has repeated what it has been saying all along— which is that what it will be looking for in settling this issue is whether the United States has given up its hostile policy toward North Korea. The United States and the others at the table will, of course, be looking for North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

Whether these can be assembled in a workable package remains to be seen, but I would think there is a reasonable shot that they could.

Do you think North Korea already has nuclear weapons?

It is unclear. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that the North probably has one or two weapons that they have had for some time. But, to my knowledge, nobody has absolute proof of that. The North certainly wants to leave the impression that it has them. Indeed, the North Korean representative, at the April [meetings between the United States, North Korea, and China] in Beijing, told Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Jim Kelly that [Pyongyang] did have nuclear weapons. Even more problematic, the North Korean said that those weapons could not be dismantled and that what the North did with them, in terms of either demonstrating them or making them available to others, for example, depended on the United States. That immediately turned what had been a national security problem into a homeland security problem.

So, one of the first things that I think is important for the North to do is to set the record straight on this and to convey to the others at the table that, in the right circumstances, they are committed to giving up their nuclear weapons program altogether.

In the past, the North Koreans have also asked for economic help and various kinds of assistance. Is that also part of their negotiations?

Yes. Although for the most part I think what North Korea is looking for from the United States is not to obstruct [its] relations with other [countries]. The North is looking for economic aid from South Korea and Japan. The United States has talked at times about being able to help under the right circumstances with energy and so on— that is, after the dismantling of the nuclear program.

One of the things that has to be dealt with is the future of the light-water reactor program. The United States [and South Korea, Japan, and the European Community] committed [in 1994] to building two very large light-water reactors [LWR]--seen to be proliferation-resistant— to replace the proliferation-prone graphite-moderated reactor program the North previously had under way. The LWR project has gone slowly for a variety of reasons but, despite all of the recent problems, it is nominally still on the books.

Obviously, under current circumstances, and given the heightened suspicions regarding the North’s nuclear-weapons ambitions, a lot of people think that light-water reactors should be set aside and other approaches to energy adopted. That is one thing the United States can perhaps help with. But, in terms of large-scale economic assistance, what the North is talking about are resources that South Korea and Japan and perhaps international financial institutions can provide. The North Koreans want the United States not to obstruct such plans.

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said recently that the United States should be prepared to go to war if North Korea doesn’t give up its nuclear weapons program. This was before the six-nation talks were announced. Is there still a view in Washington that only a military solution is likely?

There are some people who believe that. [More prevalent], however, is the view of many people who want change in North Korea’s leadership. They say, “If we really want to solve the problem, if we really want to get rid of the nuclear program, the only sure solution is regime change.” I remain convinced that, while most people would agree that it would probably be desirable to replace the current regime, it is not a viable policy.

Some people say you cannot trust the North to give up everything. That may turn out to be true. But if you cannot resolve the problem, you at least have to manage it well. The dilemma we talked about [in an April interview] remains. That is, if in fact you cannot come to terms on an agreement which leads to the total, verifiable, irreversible elimination of the North’s nuclear-weapons program, you need to decide what to do. Do we simply “live with” a North Korean nuclear arsenal of some size? Given the intelligence estimate that they now have one or two weapons, we may have already been living with it for some time.

But if we assume they may get more, for example, from reprocessing the spent fuel they had on hand, as they claim they have done, I think that is not a question that has been answered. Moreover, my suspicion is that, depending on what can be achieved in negotiations— let’s say that North Korea says, “We will stop doing this, we’ll dismantle that, but we won’t allow intrusive verification anywhere you want, whenever you want”--then the other five at the table will probably have some difficult discussions among themselves on how to react.

Did the United States gain by having the other four nations join the talks with North Korea? Isn’t it true that these countries are not so keen on putting intense pressure on North Korea?

All of them agree at some level that there must be an implicit threat of a more coercive approach if they are going to get North Korea to agree. Inducements are an important part of this, and China, South Korea, and perhaps Russia are looking at [them]. But there is general agreement that there has to be some kind of a downside for North Korea if it doesn’t go along. I think there are indeed differences among the countries on how far to go in that regard. Having said that, I believe it is useful to have the other countries at the table.

It has been my view for some time that from both the U.S. and the North Korean points of view, there are good reasons to want to have a multilateral setting, even if bilateral conversations are also an important component. For us, having the larger group makes clear to the North that there is a genuine international feeling that the North needs to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. For the North, it provides some assurance that whatever it gets in the way of commitments on security or in the economic realm has the backing of that same international community.

Moreover, even if there were not a larger group sitting at the table, whatever it will take to fashion a deal that will work will require the cooperation of the others, certainly of China, South Korea, and Japan. So, the symbolism and the active participation of the others have value. The downside is we may have some different perspectives that need to be ironed out, but if we are all sitting down at the same table, we are more likely not to disagree because we will have worked out an overall common approach.

The Chinese seem to have toughened their position toward North Korea in recent months.

They have, for two reasons. They have come to take the North’s weapons program more seriously than they did earlier. But they also see that the alternatives to a negotiated outcome are not likely to be in their interest. They have certainly engaged in a high-profile, very active, highly constructive way.

Has the new government in Seoul come closer to the United States negotiating position?

Yes, especially in the sense that it recognizes that you can’t just have good will toward the North and assume everything will work out. South Korea for obvious reasons clearly has a strong preference for not going down a path that could lead to war. The hardest-line country together with us at this point is obviously Japan, not only because of the nuclear issue, but because of the very negative attitudes created in Japan by the [so-called] abduction issue [concerning Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s]. The Japanese felt [this issue] was being resolved last year, but [tensions worsened] when it was revealed that only 5 of the 13 Japanese the North Koreans acknowledged kidnapping were alive. [The abductees returned to Japan in October 2002] but there is also the issue of reuniting the abductees with their families, who are still in North Korea. There is some movement on that issue, apparently, but we’ll have to see how far it goes.

Any sign that North Korea has slackened its effort to export its missiles or nuclear technology?

I don’t know that we really know. There is a story as we speak in the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun that the North Koreans are working with Iran to ship some longer-range missiles. Part of that story is that they also look to working with Tehran on developing nuclear warheads.

Getting a handle on the missile issue is a serious component of resolving the nuclear issue as well. At this time, I would generally say we should stay away from adding [to a negotiated settlement] requirements for economic reform, as necessary as that might be over the long term, or [improvements in] human rights, as desirable as that might be. Even mixing conventional weapons reductions into this negotiation could significantly lessen the chances of dealing successfully with the more urgent nuclear and missile issues, but they will have to be part of any approach to replacing the 1953 [Korean War] Armistice with permanent peace arrangements.

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