The National Catholic Review
In the wake of North Korea’s first nuclear weapon test on Oct. 9, 2006, the long-stalled six-party talks resumed in Beijing in December, but quickly ended without tangible progress. The multinational talksin which Russia, China, South Korea and Japan joined North Korea and the United Statesstalled in September 2005, shortly after having achieved what was then called a breakthrough agreement. For the first time, North Korea commited itself to abandoning all of its existing nuclear programs, including its small nuclear weapons arsenal. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that the North Koreans may have eight to 10 weapons. North Korea also promised to recommit itself to the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, from which it withdrew in 2003. In return, the other parties in the talks agreed to provide North Korea with economic and energy assistance, including the light-water nuclear reactors first promised by the United States in 1994 but never delivered. The United States and North Korea also agreed to take steps toward normalizing their diplomatic and economic relations. Apparently, the Bush administration tacitly abandoned its desire to promote regime change in Pyongyang and even suggested, for the first time, that it would recognize North Korea’s sovereignty.

The euphoria generated by the September 2005 agreement, however, was short-lived. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that North Korea would have to abandon its nuclear weapons before the United States sent the light-water nuclear reactors. In response, the North Koreans said that they would not begin nuclear disarmament until they received the reactors.

In November 2005 the multinational talks resumed in Beijing in an attempt to iron out the differences that prevented implementation of the September Agreement. But they quickly broke down as a result of a new problem: the imposition by the United States of financial restrictions on North Korea.

In September 2005 the Treasury Department ordered U.S. banks to sever relations with a North Korean bank, Banco Delta Asia. The bank was accused of passing counterfeit $100 bills manufactured by the North Korean government as well as of helping North Korea launder money from drug smuggling and other illicit activities. The restriction curtailed the country’s access to the international banking system, even for the purposes of legitimate foreign trade.

The U.S. action, which further isolated the North Koreans, was designed, as one administration official admitted, to squeeze them, but keep the negotiations going. But the parties in the multinational talks have not resumed meeting since. The North Koreans said they would not return to the talks until the U.S. financial sanctions were lifted. Instead, they said, they would concentrate on strengthening their nuclear deterrent. North Korea’s nuclear weapon test in October 2006 was obviously a step in that direction, as well as an attempt by the North Koreans to pressure the Bush administration to adopt a more realistic policy.

U.N. Sanctions

In the meantime, North Korea has had to swallow a dose of realism. Reacting to the nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea on Oct. 14. The sanctions included freezing the assets of businesses connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, restricting the sale of luxury goods and placing travel bans on government officials. The Security Council also authorized neighboring countries to inspect cargo going into and out of North Korea.

Although both China and South KoreaNorth Korea’s two most important trading partnerswent along with the U.N. sanctions resolution, neither country has conducted the rigorous inspections required to make sanctions work. Both countries fear that strong economic sanctions would destabilize the impoverished North Korean communist regime and possibly provoke it to react militarily against South Korea. In addition, China does not want to confront a massive wave of North Korean refugees trying to escape their country’s economic collapse.

The Chinese, however, did pressure the North Koreans to return to the multinational talks. The North Koreans were not about to jeopardize the continued flow of Chinese economic assistance on which their frail economy heavily depends. The Chinese also persuaded the Bush administration to agree to deal with the counterfeiting issue through a working group in the six-party talks, thereby providing the North Koreans with a face-saving way of returning to the negotiating table.

But the most recent round of the talks again ended in stalemate after the North Koreans refused to discuss their nuclear disarmament until the United States removed its financial restrictions on North Korea. But the U.S. delegation insisted that the financial discussions and the nuclear disarmament talks must proceed simultaneously on separate tracks.

Some analysts now believe it may be impossible to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. That certainly may prove to be true. But it is also clear that the Bush administration has not tried hard enough to get them to do so.

A New Strategy

To have any chance of success in persuading the North Koreans to accept nuclear disarmament, President Bush will have to admit that his hard-line strategy has not worked. While he has been demanding that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapon programs before U.S. concessions are actualized, the North Koreans have continued to produce nuclear weapons, and now have tested one. Even more ominous, they are likely to conduct an additional nuclear test in the near future, not only to prove the effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent but also to increase pressure on the United States to be more conciliatory.

As a result, North Korea’s neighborsJapan, South Korea and Taiwanhave been compelled to consider how long they can refrain from building their own nuclear arsenals. And the more distant Iranians, who seem intent on pursuing a nuclear weapons program of their own, are watching closely to see if North Korea gets away with snubbing the U.N. Security Council.

In short, the international effort to halt the further proliferation of nuclear weapons now teeters on the precipice of collapse. If it does expire, the proliferation of nuclear weaponsand the increased risk of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons or materialswill only complicate the task of preserving the security of the United States.

That is why it is essential that the Bush administration act now to preserve the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. The president will have to offer the North Koreans something substantial before expecting them to begin dismantling their nuclear arsenal. Perhaps an offer to establish diplomatic relations between the two governments in return for North Korea’s willingness to freeze its nuclear weapon activities and readmit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify the freeze would be a good first step.

Such an offer on the part of the president would certainly be dramatic. But it might be the kind of bold action required to break the ice in the talks and remove North Korean doubts about his sincerity. After all, the rapprochement between China and the United States that ended decades of cold war hostility between the two countries began with President Jimmy Carter’s dramatic announcement in 1979 that he was restoring U.S. diplomatic relations with that nation.

The other concessions promised in the September 2005 agreement also should be implemented in incremental steps geared to North Korea’s progress in returning to the ranks of the nonnuclear-weapon states. Working out the order of these steps should be a high priority of the next round of the multinational talks.

Of course, hard liners inside and outside the Bush administration will continue to call such a grand bargain with North Korea as tantamount to appeasing a nuclear blackmailer. But the fact is, the current hard-line policy has not prevented North Korea from building a nuclear arsenal. Few commentators accused the Bush administration of appeasement when it persuaded Libya to abandon its nuclear weapons program in 2005. If talks with North Korea produce the same result, the critics can accuse the president of appeasement. The American people, however, and most of the rest of the world’s inhabitants, would be able to breathe much easier because North Korea’s nuclear teeth would be removed.

If such an outcome were achieved, it would not be an insignificant part of George W. Bush’s presidential legacy.

Ronald E. Powaski is an adjunct professor of history at Cleveland State University. His book Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981-1999 was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.