The failure of the Bush administration’s haphazard diplomacy in Northeast Asia over the past six years is now complete: North Korea snubbed its nose at its neighbors and Washington, apparently testing a nuclear weapon that threatens both the regional balance of power and the global nonproliferation regime.
It is difficult to know what is worse, the failure of the Bush administration to stop this threat or the pompous pronouncements coming from the White House and our United Nations ambassador. U.S. officials do not have a clue as to what to do now. Fortunately, the test, even if it is as successful as the North Koreans claim, indicates that they are still some years and several more tests away from perfecting a useable nuclear weapon.
The device tested had a relatively small yield and is far too large to fit on a missile or plane. Kim Jong Il knows that if he ever actually used a nuclear weapon, the response would be swift, certain, and devastating. The risk of transfer to a terrorist group is not as great as some fear, and any terrorist use would be blamed on North Korea with the same deadly consequences.
The real danger is what happens in the region and beyond. Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan may begin to recalculate their nuclear options. India might use the Korean crisis as an excuse to conduct more tests, with Pakistan following suit. Iran will watch closely, and if North Korea succeeds, it will be encouraged to accelerate its own nuclear efforts. States around the world could decide that a new nuclear arms race has begun—and they had better join in.
How could the Bush administration strategy fail so spectacularly? And what’s to be done now? The answers are interwined.
President Bush vowed to never let the world’s most dangerous regimes get the world’s most dangerous weapons. Rather than pursue treaties to eliminate weapons, Bush opted to eliminate regimes. Rather than follow the successful strategies of decades of Republicans and Democrats, including his own father, President Bush followed the untested prescriptions conjured up in neoconservative Washington think tanks.
Iraq was the first direct application of this radical new strategy. It failed catastrophically. The invasion of a state that did not have nuclear weapons produced chaos in Iraq and diverted U.S. attention from other, more pressing nuclear challenges in North Korea and Iran. Both states took advantage. Both advanced their nuclear programs more in the past five years than they had in the previous ten.
Now is the time to break with the failed framework of the past six years and to fire the architects. Now we must unleash all of Americans’ power—military, economic and diplomatic—to contain the North Korean program and begin to roll it back.
Here’s how. We start with the strongest possible U.N. Security Council resolution to isolate North Korea and focus the outrage that most nations feel about what China calls the “brazen” actions of the North. Then we put together multilateral sanctions and interdiction actions that both punish the leadership and harass their trade.
We must be clear on the purpose of these actions. Sanctions will never be enough to coerce North Korea into compliance, but they can prod it back to the negotiating table. Any strategy must end with a negotiated solution. No nation has ever been coerced into giving up nuclear weapons or programs, but many have been convinced to do so. It is not too late to convince North Korea’s leaders that their material and political prospects are better without nuclear weapons than with them.
Direct negotiations have worked in the past, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and most recently in Northeast Asia, as our timeline on North Korea makes abundantly clear. The North Korean plutonium production program that began under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush was frozen under President Bill Clinton. North Korea did not process any additional plutonium during Clinton’s eight years, and his term ended with a missile testing moratorium in place and good prospects for a final, negotiated end to both programs.
What followed was four wasted years of a new Bush policy. North Korea crossed redline after redline without penalty. It left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted its reactor, and boosted its supply of plutonium six fold, from enough for an estimated two weapons to enough for perhaps 12.
Recognizing this failure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to direct negotiations within the framework of the six-party talks. It worked. She secured an agreement in September 2005 to end the weapons program in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic recognition.
But the neoconservatives struck back. The deal was undercut in the same month by the offices of the vice president and secretary of defense, which together orchestrated financial restrictions that angered the North Koreans enough to kill the deal but not kill the program.
Now is the time to get smart. We must regain control of this situation. Newly-elected U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has offered to mediate. Let him. China can help arrange this intervention. China is perfectly willing to pressure the North. The Chinese will never go so far as to cause the collapse of the regime, however. That would send millions of refuges streaming north and south, destabilizing the entire peninsula.
Simultaneously, direct negotiations with North Korea could begin. President Bush could have an envoy meet with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations under the ostensible purpose of arranging the transition back to six-party talks. The envoy must tell the North that if they return, they will find a U.S. delegation waiting there ready to begin implementation of the deal reached last September.
The U.S. should tell North Korea that we will give them 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 Iraqi one: its costs were minimal, no one died, and it was one hundred percent effective.
President Bush must show that he gets it. He must end his administration’s internal policy paralysis in Washington and back a new, final push for a deal. After an appropriate period and after the appropriate pressures have begun, he should send Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to meet with his Korean counterparts. He should send Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to China, South Korea, and Japan for direct talks, building on the success of new Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s current trip around the region.
It is not to late to stop this nuclear threat. But the longer we wait to correct course, the higher the price will be and the greater the risk that no deal will be possible at all.
Joe Cirincione is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress.