U.S. and North Korea: The land of lousy options

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Sixty-one years ago this weekend, North Korean artillery opened fire along the 38th Parallel, and a war began that claimed the lives of more than 33,000 American soldiers, 100,000 Chinese “volunteers” and 2 million Koreans.

Today, the goal of building a lasting peace remains elusive. In fact, the peninsula is more dangerous than ever. North Korea has twice tested nuclear weapons and is developing missiles to carry them. It has built facilities capable of producing highly enriched uranium for more nuclear weapons. In defiance of a U.N. arms embargo, it continues to export weapons and sensitive technologies to unsavory partners such as Myanmar. And last year, the deadliest since the armistice in 1953, a North Korean torpedo killed 46 South Korean sailors and an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island killed four more South Koreans.

The U.S. response to all of this has been measured but firm. It has also been inadequate.

More than three years have passed since the last round of six-party talks on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and it’s no coincidence that this diplomatic hiatus has been marked by dangerous conduct. Our current approach of strong sanctions and intense coordination with South Korea and Japan does not provide sufficient leverage to stabilize the situation, much less bring about a change in North Korean behavior. Left unchecked, Pyongyang will build more nuclear weapons, test them and develop missiles that could directly threaten the United States.


What are our options?

Returning immediately to the six-party talks (which included North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan) is not viable. South Korea won’t participate unless North Korea atones for its recent bad behavior. And the North, approaching a leadership succession in 2012, is disinclined to cooperate lest it look weak.

Similarly, there are limits to the pressure that China is willing and able to apply. China exerts the most leverage as North Korea’s ally and largest trading partner, but it’s not willing to risk the country’s collapse. Further, Pyongyang has a habit of stubbornly resisting good advice, even from its patrons in Beijing.

The best alternative is for the United States to engage North Korea directly.

We all have grown weary of North Korea’s truculence — its habit of ratcheting up tensions, followed by calls to negotiate back from the brink, followed by concessions, and a repetition of the process. But while North Korea may be the “land of lousy options,” as one expert calls it, inaction only invites a dangerous situation to get worse.

That is why, always in close consultation with our South Korean allies, we should explore steps that can reduce the threat and return to the path toward a denuclearized peninsula. Achieving complete denuclearization will take time, but in the near term we should try to negotiate an end to the North’s enrichment of uranium, a moratorium on nuclear weapons and missile testing, the removal of fresh fuel rods capable of producing fissile material and the final dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. These are worthy intermediate goals along the path toward complete and verifiable denuclearization.

To be sure, it’s unlikely that we can resume such sensitive talks immediately given the current state of relations. We need to start more slowly.

A good place to begin would be to open talks with North Korea on resuming recovery operations in North Korea for American servicemen still missing from the war — operations suspended in 2005 by Donald Rumsfeld. The North is willing to resume these efforts. This will open a direct channel of communication with the Korean People’s Army, and will return U.S. soldiers to the battlegrounds of North Korea on a solemn mission to ensure that no American is left behind.


We should also resume carefully monitored U.S. food assistance to hungry North Korean children and other vulnerable populations. North Korean human rights envoy Bob King’s recent visit to Pyongyang reflects a long and wise American tradition of separating humanitarian concerns from politics. If the North allows strict monitoring, as it did when U.S. nongovernmental organizations delivered food aid in 2008, then the United States should demonstrate our compassion for the famished children of North Korea.

After two years of near-silence, reestablishing contact would demonstrate that cooperation is possible, if only on humanitarian issues at first. Then we can move on to tougher issues, including dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea is changing, undergoing a leadership transition and increasing exposure to the outside world. If we give Pyongyang a stake in improving its behavior, we increase the odds that our nuclear engagement will be successful in the coming years.

Rebuilding a relationship is essential to unlocking the nuclear puzzle and forging a lasting peace. Let’s get on with it.

John Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.