Center for American Progress

Breakthrough in Sight: U.S. Talks with North Korea Get Serious
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Breakthrough in Sight: U.S. Talks with North Korea Get Serious

Reversing course, Bush administration tries direct negotiations with Pyongyang to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons program. It's about time.

The Bush administration was against direct negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program before it was for them; it was also for regime change in North Korea before it was against it. But never mind these serial flip flops. The decision this week to speak directly with officials from this dysfunctional, nuclear-armed nation offers the last best chance to persuade Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear weapons ambitions.

In Berlin earlier this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill met directly with his counterpart from North Korea, Kim Kye-gwan, for the first time outside the parameters of the so called six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. Hill and Kim have met separately prior to previous six-party negotiations, but never outside Beijing and never outside the immediate confines of the six-party framework.

The tacit U.S. decision to honor North Korea’s longstanding demand that the United States negotiate directly with Pyongyang was followed yesterday by comments from both Hill and his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that the U.S. would begin (but in fact continue) direct bilateral negotiations if North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program. What’s more, U.S. Treasury officials are also engaged in direct talks with their financial counterparts from North Korea over global financial sanctions imposed by Washington on Pyongyang—action that led directly last year to the collapse of the last best chance to corral North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

At that time, we at the Center for American Progress questioned the timing of that global financial crackdown, which reportedly was orchestrated by officials in the Bush administration at Vice President Dick Cheney’s urging, apparently in a bid to scuttle a recent diplomatic accord over North Korea’s nuclear energy program. It worked, but with unintended consequences. North Korea then proceeded with its first (and only partially successful) detonation of a nuclear device.

Having proven the point that it is, in fact, a nuclear power, Pyongyang then agreed to return to the negotiating table following heavy diplomatic pressure from the United Nations, in the form of economic sanctions, and even more persuasive pressure from China, North Korea’s only real sympathizer in the region and, more importantly, its economic lifeline. CAP noted at the time that tough diplomacy works, and then argued that serious carrots now must be offered to see the negotiations to a successful conclusion. To our delight, that’s what happened in Berlin this week, and what may continue to happen later this month in Beijing when the six-party talks are set to resume.

This one-step-forward, half-step-back nature of negotiating with Pyongyang, punctuated as always by North Korean-style brinkmanship, will always be difficult and could quite possible fail. But we have a blueprint that could work. The U.S. should make clear that we will give North Korea the deal we gave Libya: complete dismantlement of the nuclear program in exchange for diplomatic recognition, security assurances, and economic incentives. The Libyan model is far superior to the regime change model we tried in Iraq. With Libya, costs were minimal, no one died, and it was 100 percent effective.

If we can negotiate such a deal with North Korea, then we would have a blueprint in hand for dealing with our other outstanding nuclear proliferation problem—Iran—while we still have time. If President Bush is willing to end his administration’s internal policy paralysis, he could direct a new, final push for an agreement with North Korea. If these efforts fail, we will have laid the groundwork for a policy that aims to contain both the North Korean program and any efforts by our regional allies to begin their own nuclear weapons programs.

We would also have shown good faith efforts to reach a deal with Pyongyang, which Tehran would surely notice. Our diplomats have proven they know how to get the job done. They just need the president to strongly support their efforts.

Joseph Cirincione is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. His areas of expertise include: nonproliferation, national security, international security, U.S. military, U.S. foreign policy.

Andrew Grotto is Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress

For more details on the Center’s national security policy prescriptions and analysis, please go to CAP’s National Security home page, including the following recent analysis on this topic:

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