The most worrisome aspect of the crisis over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is that America's negotiating position has been weakened at each new turn of diplomacy. As a result, options have become starker, raising the choice of either acquiescence or a major crisis.
The Clinton Administration has failed to explain--or perhaps to understand--the nature of its problem. If, after much U.S. huffing and puffing, North Korea emerges with a nuclear-weapons capability--or a capability it can rapidly activate--stability in Asia, the U.S. role in Asia and non-proliferation will all be gravely jeopardized.
Specifically, U.S. troops in South Korea, shorn of their tactical nuclear shield, will be in a precarious position; South Korea will be tempted to develop nuclear weapons of its own; Japan, within range of North Korean missiles, will accelerate its nuclear-weapons and military programs; China will speed up its preparedness; industrialized nations of Southeast Asia--and perhaps Taiwan--will start their own nuclear programs; rogue states will be encouraged to join the parade.
The Administration's response has emphasized a bilateral diplomacy focused on abstruse issues of inspection. To be sure, the diplomatic environment has not been congenial. China, Japan and South Korea would seem to have more to lose from a nuclear North Korea than the United States. But, in practice, they seem not to perceive their risks, though reports last week suggested that China may have played a role in persuading North Korea to freeze its nuclear program.
For its part, the Administration has oscillated among its options. In 1993, the U.S. position was that North Korea had to reverse its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accept the full inspection system of the International Atomic Agency, including suspect sites. Since then, the U.S. position has been watered down to asking that North Korea only suspend its withdrawal and only to discuss inspections of seven declared sites. The demand for inspections of two suspect sites has been dropped.
The most significant retreat has been from the President's statement of "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb" to a policy that says the North need only stop developing its capability. In other words, North Korea could keep the two nuclear bombs intelligence believes it may have built before 1992 and maintain its capacity to produce plutonium, which the IAEA estimates has doubled since 1992. Acquiescing to what existed would make North Korea a nuclear power even if, in any one year, it stopped reprocessing its plutonium.
These retreats may have given Pyongyang the idea that it could stall indefinitely. Despite a U.S. offer to cancel permanently its annual military exercises with Seoul if the North accepted IAEA inspections, in March, 1994, Pyongyang refused any such inspections, and in May it began to remove enough plutonium from its reactor in Yongbyon that, if reprocessed, would yield five to seven nuclear weapons. Finally, in June, 1994, the Administration hesitantly decided to explore--almost apologetically--sanctions against North Korea.
Even this tentative and essentially meaningless measure was vitiated within days by the President's permission to former President Jimmy Carter to visit North Korea. Carter was known to be strongly opposed to sanctions; he had said that the source of the crisis was not Pyongyang's conduct but a "misunderstanding," easily removed by high-level contact. Permitting Carter to go was bound to embarrass countries that had agreed to sanctions. And it had to be construed in Pyongyang as an indication that the Administration was looking for a way out when confronted by Pyongyang's threat that sanctions spelled war.
Not surprisingly, Kim il-Sung used the Carter visit to induce yet another U.S. retreat. The sanction effort was suspended. In return for "good faith" negotiations--and for so long as these negotiations go on--Pyongyang has agreed not to reprocess the plutonium it had illegally removed from its reactor. And it agreed to discuss IAEA safeguards, though not for the two suspected sites. In return for stopping what should not have been done in the first place, Pyongyang has asked for U.S. recognition, a U.S. pledge not to use nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and for what amounts to an economic-aid program in the guise of resources for a light-water reactor.
The much-touted Pyongyang concessions, however, are more compatible with an attempt to gain time than with a serious effort to solve the problem. Pyongyang's postponement of reprocessing the plutonium would be meaningful only if the forthcoming negotiations last more than three months. For when plutonium emerges from nuclear reactors, it is too radioactive to reprocess. A "cooling down" period of several months is required. Thus, Pyongyang's overture may also be designed to prevent a U.S. air strike during the next three months, when the plutonium is not yet being processed and there is no danger of fallout. In the best of circumstances, the North will retain the essence of its nuclear program and the ability to sell nuclear technology, plutonium and ballistic missiles.
The beginning of wisdom is for U.S. policy-makers to recognize that no compromise is possible between a nuclear and a non-nuclear North Korea. A freeze of the North's activities that leaves it in possible possession of weapons and a growing plutonium-producing capability would pose a mounting threat to vital U.S. interests in Asia, to Asian stability, and, in the longer run, to the U.S. role in the region and to non-proliferation in general. A rollback is needed.
When the stakes are so high, unilateral action cannot be excluded. But no framework for it has been created.
Unless the forthcoming talks with North Korea make rapid progress toward ending the North Korean weapons program, the United States should call a conference within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of nuclear states and Japan, because of its vital interests in Northeast Asia. The United States must stress its convictions and invite proposals, especially as the Non-Proliferation Treaty is coming up for review in 1995. Only after such a conference can it be determined whether the United States should proceed unilaterally.
The U.S. message should be unambiguous. While the United States would welcome normal relations with Pyongyang and is prepared to help find alternative sources of energy for it, these measures cannot be extorted by a nuclear-weapons program. The precondition for improved relations must be full compliance with IAEA inspections of all sites--whether declared or suspected--an accounting for past production and a return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If North Korea begins to refuel the reactor or reprocess the plutonium, talks with it should be broken off and full sanctions against it sought.
Before any military action is implemented, another serious diplomatic effort is necessary. But it must have a definite time limit; it should remove, not entrench, the North Korean weapons program. Meantime, the President should prepare himself, his Administration and the American people for the possibility that even the most dedicated diplomacy may not succeed.