For Immediate Release: March 7, 2001

To Policy Brief

For more information, contact: David Albright, President
or Holly Higgins, Research Analyst

Stay the Course on North Korea

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's visit to Washington this week provides the new Bush administration with its first real opportunity to shed light on U.S. security and nonproliferation policy on the Korean peninsula. The Bush administration should send a clear signal that it intends to stay the course on engaging North Korea to give up its threatening nuclear and missile programs.

According to a new policy brief issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), the new administration should continue to engage North Korea, particularly with respect to the 1994 Agreed Framework, which would rid North Korea of its controversial nuclear program.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has tasked the State Department to conduct a thorough review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. According to ISIS Research Analyst Holly Higgins, "a balanced review will find that engagement with North Korea has produced significant benefits."

In particular, the Bush administration should not undervalue the benefits of the Agreed Framework. "The Agreed Framework capped North Korea's nuclear weapons program at an early stage; helped avoid military conflict; reduced tensions in the region; contributed to a rapprochement between North and South Korea; enabled the United States and North Korea to discuss North Korea's missile program; and paved the way to the suspension of North Korea's missile flight tests," she adds.

According to the ISIS policy brief, the Bush administration should continue engaging North Korea, with a few mid-course corrections. When former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry conducted a Congressionally mandated review during the final years of the Clinton administration, he recommended that the United States adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to resolving North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. However, Perry emphasized that engagement would only work if there was a continuity of policy beyond the end of the Clinton administration.

Secretary of State Powell got off to a good start by assuring South Korea that the Bush administration remained open to engagement with North Korea. Recent hints of change are evident, however, in a new emphasis on "reciprocity." Powell recently has signaled that U.S.-North Korean relations will only improve if North Korea first resolves its missile, nuclear, and even conventional weapons threats.

In contrast, South Korean President Kim would like to see the Bush administration adopt a less aggressive stance, beginning with Bush's public support for Kim's engagement policy. "U.S. public support for the South Korean engagement policy would strengthen Kim's hand against critics in South Korea who are urging greater South Korean restraint," Higgins says.

According to the ISIS policy brief, it is critical that the United States and South Korea continue to coordinate their policies towards North Korea. If "reciprocity" is needed in dealing with North Korea, Presidents Bush and Kim should signal their intent to coordinate on understanding exactly what "reciprocity" means for U.S. and South Korean security.

Policy coordination between Japan, South Korea, and the United States under the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) is also vital. Coordination among these parties is currently stronger than at any time in the past. It is important to show North Korea that there are no cracks in this unified front. "Should the U.S. go off on its own tangent without coordinating with South Korea and Japan, tensions on the Korean peninsula are bound to increase," says ISIS President David Albright.

Recent recommendations that the Agreed Framework be renegotiated have also raised alarms in South Korea. Critics of the Agreed Framework have focused a great deal of attention on the wisdom of providing nuclear reactors, the durability of North Korea's electrical grid, and the high burden of heavy fuel oil costs on the United States.

Although the Agreed Framework might be supplemented with additional agreements, it should not be renegotiated. "Many technical issues need to be studied carefully," said Higgins, "but renegotiating the Agreed Framework could enable North Korea to restart its nuclear weapons effort."

Albright emphasizes that the time is fast approaching when it will be necessary to ensure North Korean compliance with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. In a lengthy study released by ISIS in November 2000, ISIS concluded that this verification effort must begin sooner and proceed more quickly. In particular, the United States should seek a process that would allow the IAEA inspection effort to begin more rapidly. "Coordinating on how to get inspectors back into North Korea should be high on the agenda" of the Bush-Kim summit, Albright says. If the Bush administration is looking for indicators of North Korean commitment to the Agreed Framework, the success of the IAEA inspection effort is the ideal measuring stick.

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