North Korea's True Colors

Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton

There's more positive news from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea: Its leaders have refused to make any further disclosure concerning its nuclear programs.

How is this umpteenth violation of the Feb. 13, 2006, agreement in the Six-Party Talks positive? Because at a critical moment on a gravely important issue, North Korea has again shown its true colors, thus providing the United States an opportunity to extricate itself from this unwise and dangerous deal.

By resuming a tough line on North Korea, Mr. Bush can at least make a future administration's retreat from a tougher, more realistic course, more difficult to explain.

Troubles in the six-party talks on Korea emerged long before this most recent public manifestation of Pyongyang's unwillingness to give up anything of consequence concerning its nuclear program. Israel's Sept. 6 raid against a likely Syrian-North Korea nuclear project was a fire bell in the night that the regime was up to its old tricks--at least for anyone willing to listen. The administration's continuing refusal to allow Israel to make public the true nature of this facility will only come back to haunt it, not only on North Korea, but also on its Middle East policy. If no North Koreans were involved, why not shout it out? If the facility was not nuclear, why not do the same? The significance of the Sept. 6 attack has not faded in Congress, nor will the demands for more public disclosure.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 13 agreement, North Korea had to develop a cover story for its uranium-enrichment activities, as well as a way to conceal its stock of plutonium and actual nuclear weapons. And yet--despite the seemingly active and continuing collaboration by the U.S. State Department in coming up with a convincing line of patter--Pyongyang still insists it never engaged in uranium enrichment, producing as evidence melted-down tubes. Melting the tubes was curious in and of itself, suggesting that in their original form they appeared much more like centrifuge equipment than artillery barrels. The regime made a fatal mistake, however, because the metal showed unmistakable traces of highly-enriched uranium (HEU).

Perhaps even the State Department's East Asia Bureau was shocked at this evidence of North Korean duplicity. In any event, the "dual use" dodge was now out of play, and Pyongyang had to be persuaded to come up with a more convincing cover story. Even this they have now refused to do.

The timing is important, because elements within the U.S. intelligence community were questioning the community's 2002 assessment that North Korea had launched a production-scope procurement effort for enrichment equipment. This effort, similar in origin and intent to the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program, may well have been sidetracked by the findings of HEU, which at least in part reinforced the 2002 conclusions.

Moreover, whatever the North Korean declaration says about its nuclear activities--assuming just for sport that we actually get a declaration--it was always only a first step in a long process of verification, and not even the most important one. If North Korea and the State Department, working together, can come up with something they think will pass the public smile test once it is released, we still need to verify the accuracy and completeness of the declaration. Here is where State has failed most obviously: There has yet to be, 11 months after the Feb. 13 agreement, even a hint of what specific mechanisms will verify a declaration. Unless and until this vacuum is filled, we are going nowhere fast in denuclearizing North Korea.

So, as Kim Jong Il's hero, Lenin, used to say, "what is to be done?"

President Bush can now argue without fear of contradiction that he has done more than anyone could expect to give fantasy a chance, and therefore make a policy course correction. North Korea has dragged out its performance for nearly a year, has less and less incentive to make Mr. Bush look good, and has in sight the possibility of a resumed Clinton administration, or something even weaker. By resuming a tough line on North Korea, Mr. Bush can at least make a future administration's retreat from a tougher, more realistic course, more difficult to explain.

Given the recent South Korean presidential election results, Mr. Bush will soon have a willing ally in Lee Myung-bak, who will be inaugurated on Feb. 25. After 10 years, a realist will once again occupy Seoul's Blue House, one who will support a tougher American line rather than oppose it.

Mr. Bush should meet with Mr. Lee as soon as practicable, and urge South Korea to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, a genuinely important Bush administration legacy. This will help squeeze the North, by adding South Korea's considerable knowledge and capabilities in the waters around the Korean Peninsula.

It will also reinforce Japan's continuing tough line under Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda--given president-elect Lee's apparent willingness to confront North Korea on its horrifying oppression of its own citizens and its international record of kidnappings. If South Korea now joins with Japan in pressing the North hard on the kidnappings, Japan is less likely to bend under State Department pressure. This should certainly provide ample reason for the U.S. not to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism for the remainder of the Bush administration.

Aligning Japan and South Korea with the U.S. will allow President Bush to increase the pressure on North Korea internationally by resuming financial sanctions and other "defensive measures." It would also help put the spotlight back on China, which has the real economic leverage to force a change in North Korea's nuclear policy, if it chose to exert it.

We are long past the point of allowing China to cover for Kim Jong Il without any cost in its relations with the U.S. Getting China to take concrete steps against North Korea's nuclear capabilities through increased economic and political pressure would be a true diplomatic success for the Bush administration in its waning days.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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