North Korea’s decision yesterday to return to the negotiating table with the United States is welcome news. The Bush administration eagerly trumpeted this small success in their otherwise bleak foreign policy portfolio. And it deserves some credit. After five years of policy paralysis, torn between pragmatists who want to end the Korean nuclear program and ideologues who want to end the regime, the administration took some advice from those urging tough diplomacy. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill met for seven hours with the North Koreans in Beijing. The combination of direct talks, United Nations sanctions, and Chinese pressure convinced Kim Jong-Il to come back to the table.
Problem is, the hardliners within the Bush Administration remain determined to undermine any direct talks with Pyongyang. For them, a deal with North Korea is appeasement, not diplomacy. Remember, Kim conducted his fizzled nuclear test last month only after regime change ideologues in the administration led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney successfully torpedoed the deal negotiated with North Korea in September last year. How did they do it? Only days after North Korea and the five other countries engaged in the Six Party talks came to a breakthrough agreement on ending the Korean nuclear program, the hardliners in the administration launched a crackdown on North Korea’s limited access to foreign exchange, targeting a bank in Macao that held Kim Jong Il’s personal accounts.
The squeeze move was enough to infuriate the North Koreans—and convince some that the US was intent on ending the regime, not ending the nuclear program—but not enough to force them to capitulate. Instead, North Korea upped the ante, refused to come back to the talks and proceeded step by step to a nuclear test, proving its capability to the world. Since then, more level heads have prevailed in Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Hill forged an international united front to isolate North Korea and then followed up with the direct talks with North Korea organized by China. Beijing stepped up to the plate, too, cutting off oil supplies and talking tough with the Kim regime in the days prior to direct talks between Hill and his North Korean counterpart, vice foreign minister Kim Gye Gwan.
The outcome was yesterday’s agreement in Beijing to return to the bargaining table to discuss not just Pyongyang’s nuclear development program but also North Korea’s broader national security and economic needs, including the Washington-orchestrated squeeze on dictator Kim’s banking accounts abroad. Rice and Hill now have an historic chance to permanently wrest American foreign policy and non-proliferation policy out of the hands of the hardliners and forge a constructive pact with North Korea to end their nuclear weapons program. President Bush must support them in that effort.
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. President Bush must end his administration’s internal policy paralysis and back a new, final push for a deal 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
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