Meaningfully engaging North Korea

By Dingli Shen | January 8, 2007

The United States should deal with North Korea in good faith before Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent reaches a point of no return.

With its October 2006 nuclear test, North Korea seemed eager to give credit to its nuclear
weapons program. While the test’s success cannot be fully discounted, it still remains uncertain if
Pyongyang has completely succeeded in conducting a nuclear weapons test.

Various possibilities exist: a successful test, a partially successful test, or a
non-nuclear bluff. Whichever the result, one has to assume that North Korea is either close to a
nuclear weapons capability or has already embarked on a course to build a preliminary nuclear

This is a disturbing development. On October 14, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed
Resolution 1718, which called for sanctions against North Korea. In an unprecedented move, China
also voted for the sanctions–and against its longtime ally–to demonstrate Beijing’s unhappiness
with the North Korean test and to sustain regional stability in Northeast Asia.

Apparently, North Korea has not developed nuclear weapons for an offensive purpose.
Pyongyang believes in nuclear deterrence and trusts that nuclear weapons will protect it by
preventing any potential aggression. The U.S. preemptive attack on Iraq four years ago must have
exacerbated North Korea’s security concern and accelerated its action.

However, Washington won’t view this development through Pyongyang’s prism. The United States
considers North Korea untrustworthy and is worried Pyongyang will trade its nuclear and missile
technology to others. This is the true dilemma. Each party justifies its own actions and won’t
attempt to understand the other’s legitimate concerns; each charges the other with wrongdoing but
won’t use a similar measure when correcting its own behavior.

The danger of such a hostile exchange is that soon it will be too late to reverse North
Korea’s nuclear weapons program. As North Korea approaches a real nuclear weapons capacity, it will
become much harder for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear deterrent in the future.

The endless six-party talks in Beijing regarding who should take the first step in
facilitating North Korea’s nuclear disarmament misses the mark. The key is not to point blame, but
to take the lead in the disarmament process. As North Korea develops nuclear weapons out of fear
and as the United States denies it intends to invade North Korea (the United States doesn’t possess
a political option to wage war against Pyongyang now anyway), it’s critical that the United States
moves the action forward.

It appears that nuclear weapons are North Korea’s core interest. Apparently, what Pyongyang
has asked for–a U.S. non-aggression and non-hostility assurance–is not a
quid pro quo to Pyongyang’s core interest. While North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear
weapons is asked to be irreversible, the U.S. promise is a piece of paper and, technically,
reversible. It’s irrational that the United States even refuses to try to meet North Korea’s demand
in the first place; the U.S. refusal has prevented a chance to test Pyongyang’s sincerity.

Currently, U.S. financial sanctions against alleged North Korean money laundering in
Macao–like Hong Kong a special administrative region of China–have the two sides at odds. The
recent round of six-party talks in Beijing in December ended without a breakthrough concerning this
matter. In my opinion, if the United States is truly committed to ending the North Korean nuclear
threat, Washington could at least temporarily waive the sanction to advance the six-party

Without such compromises from the United States, new suspicions will emerge about whether
Washington actually wants to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program in a meaningful way. Future
American leaders might have to accept a nuclear-equipped North Korea as a
fait accompli if the Bush administration continues to waste time.

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