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Don't Outsource North Korea Problem to China
By Andrew F. Diamond and Daniel A. Pinkston
An Op-Ed for The Korea Times.
North Korea has shut down its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to raise the stakes in its nuclear standoff with the United States. Since the reactor has been operating for about 25 months, North Korea should be able to extract enough plutonium for about two bombs sometime next year after the most radioactive elements in the fuel rods decay sufficiently to be handled by technicians.
Despite Pyongyang's clear efforts to increase its nuclear capability, the Bush administration is still refusing to discuss the issue bilaterally with North Korea. Instead, Washington is relying on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang into returning to the six-party talks, which have been stalled for almost one year. This strategy is unlikely to resolve the crisis, and it also risks alienating U.S. allies and marginalizing Washington in the region.
Pyongyang has demanded bilateral negotiations with the United States, but the Bush administration flatly rejects them as "a concession" or "rewarding bad behavior." Bilateral and multilateral negotiations are not mutually exclusive, but the Bush administration has viewed the two options as a zero-sum proposition. In fact, they are complementary because they would bring North Korea back to the negotiating table at little or no cost to the U.S., and they would also increase the prospects for the institutionalization of the six-party framework for dealing with a number of other regional issues after settling the North Korean nuclear problem.
Critics argue that the Bush administration would incur "domestic audience costs" if the U.S. holds bilateral talks with North Korea, or that accepting Pyongyang's request for bilateral talks would signal a weakening of U.S. resolve. We believe this criticism is unwarranted and that the risks of avoiding talks now are much greater.
One unintended consequence of the U.S. insistence on multilateralism is that it requires a dominant Chinese role in the process. As host of the six-party talks, Beijing has placed itself front and center in the conflict, but China would prefer to play the role of moderator rather than bully.
Beijing has insisted from the beginning that ultimately the conflict needs to be resolved by the U.S. and North Korea. Even Hwang Jang-yop, the highest ranking North Korean defector and the country's harshest critic, agrees that the problem can only be resolved through U.S.-North Korea talks. This assessment is realistic, as it recognizes what Pyongyang really wants in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program: a formal negative security assurance and normalized relations from Washington.
During Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Asian tour last month, she said that China is not doing enough to bring North Korea back to the six-party Talks, which is a view increasingly sounded by Bush administration officials. However, this logic is fundamentally flawed, as it overestimates China's leverage over North Korea.
While China certainly wants to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, it will not risk causing the collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime by cutting off shipments of oil or food. Such a collapse, while a desired outcome for many in the U.S., is undesirable to the Chinese and South Koreans. A North Korean collapse would almost certainly cause a massive influx of North Korean refugees and potentially disrupt China's economic growth, which is a primary goal of the leadership in Beijing.
Collapse or instability would also introduce uncertainty over the control of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which could be transferred through China or to non-state actors that could use the weapons against China or others in the region. A U.S. military strike against North Korean WMD facilities could be equally disastrous for China, while South Korea's capital Seoul, within range of North Korea's artillery, would be devastated if Pyongyang were to retaliate.
The North Korean leadership understands the web of constraints in the region and is unlikely to be moved by China's limited pressure. Conversely, Pyongyang recognizes that there are certain "red lines"--such as a nuclear test or the transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups or rogue states--the crossing of which would trigger the formation of a hostile counter-coalition in East Asia. In sum, U.S. policymakers waiting for "irrational" North Korean leaders to miscalculate and bail out the ineffective Bush policy might find themselves to be the ones who have miscalculated.
This leaves Washington and Pyongyang locked in an Asian game of saving face, each waiting for the other to blink and unwilling to make any move that could be viewed as a concession or weakening of resolve. But the Bush administration policy only reinforces Washington's reliance on the other six-way talk participants to come up with creative solutions.
If progress remains slow, relations between Washington and Beijing will become more strained, resulting in U.S. interests being undermined in East Asia. Furthermore, U.S.-South Korean relations are also in a downward spiral due to differing approaches towards North Korea and bilateral alliance issues.
Since the crisis emerged over two and a half years ago, Washington has been preoccupied with Iraq. Some U.S. policymakers believe time has been on the U.S. side because North Korea's impoverishment and inept economy would force Pyongyang back to the bargaining table to surrender its nuclear weapons program. If that were true, Pyongyang should have capitulated years ago, and the reality is that the North Korean economy is now showing improvement.
As the shutdown of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon demonstrates, waiting only gives Pyongyang the opportunity to produce more fissile material while others in East Asia become accustomed to a nuclear North Korea, and thus acquire a vested interest in North Korea's stability.
The six-party talks are necessary for policy coordination and maximizing pressure against North Korea, but in Pyongyang's view they are insufficient for the provision of a credible negative security assurance, which is necessary if North Korea is to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Some analysts argue that Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear option under any circumstances.
They may be right, but we will never know if Washington continues to outsource its North Korea policy to Beijing. Even though the Bush administration despises the idea of talking with Pyongyang, bilateral talks are not a "concession" or a weakening of resolve.
The risks of the current stalemate are very high. If the Bush administration is seriously interested in a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. will have to talk to North Korea directly. If diplomacy fails following bilateral talks, Washington's position will be greatly enhanced when Chinese and South Korean cooperation is needed to implement a more coercive approach.
Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D., is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. Andrew F. Diamond is the program manager of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
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