Hearts are fluttering once again among the disarmament folks over renewed hopes that North Korea will finally take the first step toward giving up the nuclear ambitions of its leader, Kim Jong-il.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have visited Yongbyon, site of North Korea's primary nuclear facility. The US negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has been received in Pyongyang. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (
Skeptics, however, have cautioned that not everything will go well. The Pyongyang regime has a long history of reneging on promises to other nations while keeping promises to the North Korean people, foremost of which is Kim's pledge to retain nuclear arms to deter what he sees as a US threat.
Graham Allison, who specialized in arms control as an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration and is now at Harvard, wrote recently that even if the Yongbyon plant is disabled, much remains to execute an accord reached in February by the Six Parties -- North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the US. It calls for Pyongyang to shut down all of its nuclear sites.
Allison warned: "Expect lengthy slogging through incomplete records, all in Korean script, missed deadlines, disputes about who can visit where, and all the other antics" that have frustrated those who have dealt with North Korea.
Confronted with this likelihood, the US appears to have evolved a new strategy, which is to play for time by adopting the North Korean tactic of talk, talk and more talk until Kim either gives up his nuclear weapons or his regime collapses. Whiffs of dissent have recently been wafting from Pyongyang, making regime change a possibility.
Said a US insider privy to this scenario: "The US will take note of North Korea's nuclear weapons but we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear nation. We will never tolerate a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons."
The game afoot has ruled out military action to destroy Pyongyang's nuclear sites. Bombs and cruise missiles could do enormous damage but would most likely trigger a North Korean attack on South Korea. Tens of thousands of South Koreans would die in artillery barrages before South Korean and US forces could overrun North Korean positions.
Instead, in this developing strategy, US negotiators will continue talking while implementing what might be called the five "Nots." The US will not:
■ extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea, thus depriving it of a status that Kim is said to be eager to attain;
■ sign a treaty replacing the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950 to 1953 because North Korea will not give assurances it will reduce its forces along the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas;
■ remove the threat of US nuclear weapons that could strike North Korea from submarines in the Pacific or with ballistic missiles or bombers based in the US;
■ offer substantial economic aid to a North Korea that has been stricken with famine, limping industrial output and financial disruption for a decade;
■ open trade and investment relations with a nation that, like China, could benefit from access to US markets, technology and capital.
The Bush Administration has already drawn fire over this strategy and can expect more, especially from China.
John Bolton, US President George W. Bush's former ambassador to the UN, echoed the so-called neo-cons in an article last week, asserting: "The Bush administration has effectively ended where North Korea policy is concerned, replaced for the next 18 months by a caretaker government of bureaucrats, technocrats and academics."
Chinese leaders have long said they will keep North Korea afloat. David Frum, of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, wrote that Beijing dreads a North Korean breakup.
"Chinese leaders know that such a collapse would unify the peninsula under a democratic government based in Seoul and aligned with the US and Japan -- for them, a terrifying outcome," he wrote.
Nor will North Korea roll over easily. Rodong Shinmun, a government mouthpiece in Pyongyang, said last week that North Korea's "mighty war deterrent for self-defense has become an invincible shield for curbing reckless war provocations of the bellicose forces at home and abroad."
Doesn't sound much like a nation ready for nuclear disarmament.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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