Stay the Course on North Korea

by Holly Higgins, Research Analyst

March 7, 2001

The Bush administration has been noticeably silent on where it intends to go with North Korean policy, and this has caused unwelcome anxiety for key U.S. allies in the region. Although the Bush administration has urged patience, time is growing short. While Bush deserves adequate time to structure his own agenda for North Korea, he should ultimately emphasize to U.S. allies that he will stay the course on North Korea. A major disruption in current policy could cause severe damage to the region and to U.S. national interests.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has tasked the State Department to conduct a thorough review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. A balanced review will find that engagement with North Korea has produced significant benefits: a nuclear weapons program has been capped at an early stage, before North Korea could accumulate enough separated plutonium for tens or even hundreds of nuclear weapons; military conflict on the Korean peninsula has been avoided; North Korean missile flight tests have been suspended; the United States and North Korea have drawn closer to a comprehensive missile deal; and prospects for improving North-South relations and for reducing regional tensions have grown. It is quite likely that within a few months North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will make his promised reciprocal visit to Seoul to meet with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

Several critics have speculated on the need for dramatic changes or an overhaul of the Agreed Framework. This 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea froze activities at North Korea’s indigenous gas-graphite reactors and associated facilities in exchange for modern light-water reactors (LWRs) and annual fuel oil deliveries.

Changing the Agreed Framework is misguided. Although some mid-course corrections appear warranted given the delays that have been encountered in implementing the Agreed Framework, major overhauls would be counter-productive, and could seriously increase tensions on the Korean peninsula.

In 1998, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry conducted a Congressionally mandated “full and complete interagency review of United States policy toward North Korea.” In the fall of 1999, Perry released his report that suggested the U.S. government adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to resolving North Korean issues. It also concluded that whatever the limitations of the Agreed Framework, these limitations would be best addressed by supplementing-not replacing-it. Perry also warned that there were no quick fixes for the Korean peninsula’s security concerns.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that the United States would still be open to a “continued process of engagement” with North Korea. He also reassured South Korea of the U.S. commitment to the Agreed Framework and the region. In his first meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn in early February, Powell reaffirmed the importance of the political, economic and security partnership between the United States and South Korea. Both also agreed on the importance of maintaining close coordination on North Korea policy as well as continuing regular senior level consultations.

Changes, however, will come under the Bush administration. The first sign is the new emphasis on the principle of reciprocity in U.S. dealings with North Korea, usually defined as clear concessions on the part of North Korea in exchange for aid and investment. Powell has stated that engagement will continue as long as North Korea also addresses U.S. political, economic, and security concerns. The Bush team has indicated that it plans to be stricter in insisting on receiving rewards under any quid pro quos with North Korea. According to Robert Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bush approach will be: “If you want to deal, let’s talk. If you don’t, here’s our phone number.” In other words, the Bush team will be less patient in negotiations and less understanding of North Korean provocations. Perhaps, North Korea will now be expected to do more.

The more sensitive nuclear issues may also be addressed more directly. Previously, South Korea and Japan did not want to complicate their negotiations with these difficult issues for fear it would cause North Korea to abandon negotiations altogether. The Bush administration may tackle them upfront as a way to test North Korea’s true commitment to the Agreed Framework.

Secretary Powell has also expressed a greater willingness to address North Korea’s conventional forces as well. Progress on this issue could be tough, however.

Although South Korea’s priority has been more focused on managing inter-Korean dialogue, President Kim has also included the idea of reciprocity in his engagement policy. In his recent address to the country, Kim Dae Jung made a promise to continue his engagement policy with North Korea on a more reciprocal basis for the remaining two years of his presidency. The statement was primarily intended to deflect the growing domestic discontent with Seoul’s engagement policy. Critics are dissatisfied with its implementation, particularly North Korea’s inadequate transparency and lack of tangible security benefits to South Korea.

In late February, South Korea’s Foreign Minister said that South Korea was willing to actively work with the United States in resolving North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) issues. Although these moves could help to closely align U.S. and South Korean policies, President Kim would like to see the Bush administration take a less severe stance on North Korea. Seoul has advocated a more cautious form of progressive reciprocity, in which the gradual settlement of security issues is accomplished through the expansion of reconciliation and cooperation.

In the short term, the United States and South Korea need to define their individual understandings of reciprocity and agree on a common standard that North Korea will be expected to meet. In addition, President Bush should express his support for Kim’s engagement policy. Doing so will provide Kim Dae Jung with the international backing he needs to implement his agenda back home, show that the United States is not acting unilaterally, and help to calm anxieties in South Korea that the United States would be tempted to sacrifice South Korea’s political standing with North Korea in order to act on its own.

In conjunction, the tripartite talks between the United States, Japan and South Korea under the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) also deserves administration support. The Bush administration should ensure high level U.S. representation at TCOG, preferably at the level of an Assistant Secretary of State. The TCOG relationship is stronger than at any time in the past, and the Bush team should actively work to support the health of this important policy-coordinating group. As Ambassador and former North Korean policy coordinator Wendy Sherman recently pointed out, it is still highly important to show North Korea that there are no cracks in this unified front.

Another potentially destabilizing issue is the U.S. plan to pursue a national missile defense (NMD) program. Understandably, South Korea is concerned about the possible effect of NMD on reconciliation efforts. North Korea is the most commonly cited threat used by the United States to justify the need for NMD. U.S. officials have said that the rationale for NMD is based on the actions of several states, but the rationale would suffer a major blow if North Korea and the United States could work out a comprehensive and verifiable missile deal. Privately, South Korean officials have said that it would be quicker and easier to deal with the North Korean missile threat through direct negotiations.

Another issue that the Bush administration should address is North Korea’s compliance with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. The time is fast approaching when North Korea must come into compliance with its safeguards agreement under the timeframe contained in the Agreed Framework. In a recently published report entitled Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) concluded that if this verification effort is to succeed, North Korea must demonstrate its commitment to transparency. Such a demonstration (or lack thereof) will be one of the most reliable indicators of North Korea’s true commitment to the Agreed Framework and to denuclearization. Transparency means that North Korea must allow internationally acceptable and adequate inspection of all its nuclear activities, and fully cooperate with the inspection process.

Once it begins, the IAEA is currently expected to take over two years to complete its task, assuming North Korea fully cooperates. Whether LWRs will be built in North Korea depends upon the success of the IAEA verification effort to ensure the completeness and correctness of North Korea’s safeguards declaration and the absence of undeclared nuclear activities. The longer the delay, the greater the risk that the Agreed Framework will collapse entirely. Finding ways to begin the inspection process earlier, and speeding it up once it begins, should be high priorities for the Bush administration.

The Bush administration may seek to modify the Agreed Framework. Concerns have focused on the wisdom of providing nuclear reactors to North Korea, the durability of North Korea’s electrical grid, and the high burden of heavy fuel oil costs on the United States.

The Agreed Framework has proven much more difficult to implement than expected. The LWR construction project is six to eight years behind schedule. As mentioned above, the IAEA inspection process has not yet happened. Thus, a few mid-course corrections are needed.

While the Agreed Framework could be supplemented with additional agreements to help alleviate specific burdens, it should not be replaced itself. For example, the United States could offer to provide a conventional power plant to North Korea, in exchange for faster movement on North Korean promises under the Agreed Framework. The power plant could help to address North Korea’s energy deficit, and could also replace the need for supplying one of the two LWRs.

However, tying the supply of conventional power plants to the Agreed Framework is complex. Under the supply contract for the LWR project, North Korea will come into full compliance with its IAEA safeguards agreement before “key nuclear components” are delivered to North Korea. Without this built-in time frame, what would trigger inspections under the new deal? Would the onset of inspections be delayed further? Modifying the Agreed Framework might cause more harm than good.

The idea of renegotiating any aspect of the Agreed Framework raises serious concerns for the South Koreans who advise against opening a Pandora’s Box. North Korea is a tough negotiating partner, and South Korean officials believe that revisiting the agreement would be difficult and may sacrifice the gains already made. North Korea may react negatively to any renegotiation of the Agreed Framework, particularly if it is accompanied by “get-tough” U.S. rhetoric.

The shaping of U.S. policy toward North Korea stands at a critical juncture. Although the Bush administration review should be balanced and thorough, time is growing short. The United States has asked for patience, but North Korea does not have a history of being patient. The Bush administration should embrace the Agreed Framework and the Perry policy, while making mid-course corrections.

The overall situation has changed dramatically on the Korean peninsula since the June 2000 inter-Korean summit and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea last October. A sense of optimism exists about Northeast Asia that was not there before. There finally is an opportunity to overcome one of the greatest threats to regional peace and security. This opportunity should not be squandered.

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