Allies resist Bush arm-twisting on N. Korea

By Leon V. Sigal, 5/23/2003

PRESIDENT BUSH will try to talk Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi into toughening his stance on North Korea when the two confer today at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The administration has been having trouble convincing South Korea and Japan to pressure North Korea into surrendering its nuclear arms programs - and for good reason. Its strategy is all hat and no cattle.

The allies may be too polite to say so in public, but they understand that pressure is counterproductive: North Korea is ready to end nuclear arming in return for security assurances from the United States and investment and aid from them.

But a deal requires diplomatic give-and-take, which the Bush administration has avoided. It insists that the North dismantle the uranium enrichment program and refreeze the plutonium program before offering anything in return.

Refusing to deal could provoke North Korea into accelerating nuclear-arming. That's fine with administration hard-liners who hope to get the allies to impose an economic embargo and naval blockade in retaliation. Never mind that blocking a deal is more likely to jeopardize the US position in Asia by undermining political support in Japan and South Korea for the alliance.

The hard-liners' stance is premised on three claims, all certain to keep talks from turning into negotiations and all at odds with the facts.

One is that North Korea is determined to nuclear arm, so negotiating is an exercise in futility.

Quite the contrary, North Korea has repeatedly said it is willing to accept a verifiable end to both its plutonium and uranium programs and to yield any weapons it has, but it will not give them away for nothing.

It is prepared to have US inspectors monitor its nuclear sites, as a way to ensure improved relations. It will not submit to international inspections until Washington ends what Pyongyang calls its ''hostile policy.'' And it insists on dealing directly with the United States, whether or not China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia are also at the negotiating table, because none of them can pledge security assurances on behalf of the United States.

At the same time, North Korea intends to keep reprocessing plutonium and generating more spent nuclear fuel in its Yongbyon reactor. It will also continue to build gas centrifuges to enrich uranium, another way to produce explosive ingredients for nuclear weapons. Before it will stop, it wants an agreement in principle that addresses its security and economic concerns.

This is intended to underscore North Korea's basic stance that if the United States remains its foe, it feels threatened and will seek nuclear arms and missiles to counter that threat, but if the United States ends enmity, it says it will not.

Does North Korea mean what it says? There is no way of knowing for sure without putting an offer on the table that satisfies both sides' interests.

History suggests that the North is willing to deal. Under the Agreed Framework of October 1994, it verifiably froze the only nuclear weapons program it had - a program that by now could have been generating 30 bombs' worth of plutonium a year, according to US intelligence.

The second contention is that the United States kept its word but North Korea cheated, or, as Bush put it in March, ''My predecessor, in a good-faith effort, entered into a framework agreement. The United States honored its side of the agreement; North Korea didn't. While we felt the agreement was in force, North Korea was enriching uranium.''

The fact is, Washington got what it most wanted up front, but did not live up to its end of the bargain. When Republicans captured control of Congress in elections just days later, they denounced the deal as appeasement. Shying away from challenging them, the Clinton administration backpedaled on implementation.

It did little easing of sanctions until 2000. Reactor construction was slow to get under way: Although it pledged to provide the first reactor ''by a target date of 2003,'' the first concrete for the foundation was not poured until August 2002. It did not always deliver heavy fuel oil on schedule. Above all, it did live up to its promise, in the words of Article II of the Agreed Framework, to ''move toward full normalization of political and economic relations'' - in other words, end enmity and end sanctions.

When Washington was slow to fulfill the terms of the accord, Pyongyang threatened to break it in 1997. Its acquisition of technology to enrich uranium began shortly thereafter.

The third administration contention is that to negotiate now would be yielding to blackmail, just as President Clinton did.

It's blackmail when you're in a dark alley and a man menaces you with a baseball bat, demands that you hand over your wallet, and you do. It's not blackmail when he hands you his bat and says, let's play ball, and you don't, which is what happened after October 1994 and is happening again now.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of ''Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.''

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 5/23/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.