Salvaging Our North Korea Policy

Senior Fellow John R. Bolton
Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton
There are signs, albeit small ones, that the Bush administration may be reaching the end of its patience with the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. These signs could prove illusory. But as it nears its end, the administration has a serious responsibility: It must not leave its successor with an ongoing, failed policy. At a minimum, President Bush should not bequeath to the next president only the burned-out hulk of the Six-Party Talks, and countless failed and violated North Korean commitments.

Since they were conceived in spring 2003, the Six-Party Talks have stumbled around inconclusively. And for the last 13 months, Pyongyang has ignored, stalled, renegotiated and violated the Feb. 13, 2007 agreement.

Pyongyang is now stonewalling yet again on its promise to disclose fully the details of its nuclear programs, including its uranium enrichment efforts and its outward proliferation.

Throughout all this "negotiation," which has mostly consisted of our government negotiating with itself, North Korea has benefited enormously. It's been spared the truly punishing sanctions that concerted international effort might have produced. In large part because of the appeasement policies of the two previous South Korean governments, Pyongyang has not felt the full impact of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) on its outward proliferation efforts. The U.S. has muzzled its criticism of North Korea's atrocious oppression of its own citizens. And, perhaps most humiliatingly of all, the U.S., in a vain effort at chasing the mirage, gave up its most effective pressure point--the financial squeeze--allowing Pyongyang renewed access to international markets through institutions like Banco Delta Asia.

In fact, the protracted Six-Party Talks have provided Kim Jong-il with the most precious resource of all: the time to enhance, conceal and even disperse his nuclear weapons programs. Time is nearly always on the side of the would-be proliferator, and so it has proven here. In exchange for five years of grace to North Korea, the U.S. has received precious little in return.

Pyongyang is now stonewalling yet again on its promise to disclose fully the details of its nuclear programs, including its uranium enrichment efforts and its outward proliferation. The successful Israeli military strike against a Syrian-North Korean facility on the Euphrates River last September highlighted the gravity of the regime's unwillingness to do anything serious that might restrict its nuclear option.

President Bush should spend the next 10 months rectifying the Six-Party concessions and put North Korea back under international pressure--efforts that would be welcomed by Japan, and South Korea's new, far more realistic President Lee Myung-bak. Here are the steps to take:

  • Declare North Korea's repeated refusal to honor its commitments, especially but not exclusively concerning full disclosure of its nuclear programs, unacceptable. This is the easiest step, and the most obvious. It can happen immediately. Accept no further partial "compliance," as the State Department continuously tries to do. Make public what we know about the North's Syria project, and its uranium enrichment and missile programs, so our 2008 presidential candidates can have a fully-informed debate.
  • Suspend the Six-Party Talks, and reconvene talks without North Korea. Although the talks could be jettisoned altogether, continuing them without the North allows Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to begin applying real pressure to China, the one nation with the capacity to bring Pyongyang's nuclear program to a halt. China has feared to apply such pressure, worried that it could collapse Kim Jong-il's regime altogether--an accurate assessment of the regime's limited staying power. Nonetheless, the effect of Chinese reticence has been to preserve Kim and his nuclear program. It is vital that China know this policy is no longer viable.
  • Strengthen international pressure on North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Ramp up PSI cooperation with South Korea. Remind Russia of its own voluntarily-assumed obligations as a PSI core member. Remind China as well to comply with the sanctions imposed on North Korea by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718 (which followed the North's 2006 ballistic missile and nuclear tests), and honor its other counterproliferation obligations. Tell them we will be watching with particular care, and that Chinese failure to increase pressure on North Korea will have implications in Sino-American bilateral relations. We can make this point privately to China rather that trumpet it publicly, but it should be made without ambiguity.
  • Squeeze North Korea economically. Return the regime to limbo outside the international financial system, and step up action against its other illicit activities, such as trafficking in illicit narcotics and counterfeiting U.S. money. These and other "defensive measures" are nothing more than what any self-respecting nation does to protect itself, and the U.S. should never have eased up on them. Even now they can have a measurable impact on Kim Jong-il's weak and unsteady regime.
  • Prepare contingency plans for humanitarian relief in the event of increased North Korean refugee flows or a regime collapse. Both China and South Korea have legitimate concerns about the burdens they would face if the North collapsed, or if increased internal economic deprivation spread instability. America and Japan should make it plain that they will fully shoulder their share of providing humanitarian supplies and assistance if either happened. Moreover, President Lee should increase pressure on Pyongyang--by reiterating that South Korea will fully comply with its own constitution and grant full citizenship to any refugees from the North, however they make their way to the South.

Doubtless there are other steps. President Bush will not likely be able to solve the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, he still has time to implement policies that will allow him to leave office with the nation back on offense--thereby affording his successor the chance to vindicate a return to the original Bush administration national security strategy.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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