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Commentary (February 24, 2004)

Six Party Talks: In Search of an American Policy

Alan D. Romberg (Senior Associate and Director, Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center)

On the eve of the second round of six party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program (to be convened Feb. 25 in Beijing), reports indicate the Bush administration will "barely sweeten" the position it took at the first round last August. The president's senior foreign policy advisers reportedly have decided to reject Pyongyang's offer of a freeze on plutonium-related facilities as "woefully inadequate," pointing to the North's refusal so far to acknowledge, much less commit to eliminate, an alternative highly enriched uranium (HEU) program to produce fissile material.

If accurate, this demonstrates once again the Bush administration lacks a serious policy for moving the North Korean nuclear issue from its current sorry - and increasingly dangerous - state toward resolution. The administration seems unable to get past the rhetoric of "complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement" of the North's nuclear weapons program to actually develop a workable strategy to achieve that important goal. Rather, as one official recently put it, the objective of the coming talks is simply to tread water, keeping the North at the table. "The motto is Do no harm," he said.

South Korea's ambassador to the U.S. has taken a more sensible - and potentially productive - approach. He has observed that "the second round of talks can make progress even if North Korea does not admit the existence" of an HEU program as long as the North does not bar discussion of that issue. In other words, rather than forcing confession or denial, the next round should leave the door open to progress through negotiation - while the Bush administration seems to view real negotiation without a prior DPRK confession to be capitulation and the role of "diplomacy," therefore, as an official put it, merely as "a placeholder to get us through the election."

The "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, has reportedly confessed to providing elements of an HEU program to North Korea. After presenting this evidence to others in the negotiation, it is perfectly reasonable for the U.S. to confront North Korea with that same information and insist that inconsistencies between the North's denials and Khan's information be cleared up.

But while it may be a good debating point to argue that Pyongyang should simply follow Libya's example (which - in the president's own words - came only after nine months of intense negotiation) and unilaterally announce a policy reversal, reliance on that line demonstrates once again the lack of any deep understanding of North Korea or a seriousness of purpose about actually resolving the problem.

U.S. officials will reportedly be explicit in their demands of Pyongyang, but far less concrete about what the North can expect in return. Why? In part because some believe the DPRK is under unbearable stress and will have to capitulate, but also because, even if the HEU program is acknowledged, there is disagreement within the U.S. government about what to offer Pyongyang, in what order, on what timetable.

Beyond insistence on "not rewarding bad behavior," some officials argue, for example, it is not sensible to grant the North's request for security assurances - which takes but a moment - in exchange merely for a commitment to dismantle the nuclear program - by necessity a long-term process. Others note, however, Pyongyang can argue that once it dismantles its program, it cannot be quickly - if ever -reconstituted, whereas a security assurance can be withdrawn in an instant, so offering such an assurance would cost little and yet be a useful inducement.

While Washington dithers, the North is proceeding with its nuclear weapons program at a pace probably slower than Pyongyang claims but perhaps faster than Washington perceives. Recent visitors to the North saw evidence that, at the least, spent fuel previously in safe storage is no longer there, fuel judged sufficient for five or six nuclear weapons. Moreover, the status of the HEU program is totally unknown.

The issue is not whether the U.S. is right to seek the total abolition of the North's nuclear program, including both its plutonium-and uranium-based components. Obviously it is. The issue is whether Washington has a coherent policy realistically designed to achieve that goal. So far the evidence is not encouraging.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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