The United States and North Korea: Few Kind Words, Lots of 'Guns'
Published on Friday, October 25, 2002 by
The United States and North Korea: Few Kind Words, Lots of 'Guns'
by Michelle Ciarrocca

"You get a lot more with a kind word and a gun than you do with a kind word alone," said Donald Rumsfeld back in 1998 as he quoted fellow Chicagoan Al Capone while accepting an award from the conservative Center for Security Policy. Rumsfeld went on to say, "You can substitute the word 'ballistic missile' and put in the name of some regional Al Capone, and it is every bit as appropriate today."

Unfortunately few, if any, kind words have been exchanged between the United States and North Korea in the past two years. But the latest remarks coming from North Korea have revealed that they might be on the way to developing a really big gun. In meetings with U.S. officials in early October, North Korea admitted to secretly continuing its nuclear weapons development program. Along with the confession, Kim Yong Nam, the president of the Supreme People's Assembly and the second highest official in North Korea, said, "If the U.S. is willing to withdraw its hostile policy toward the North, the North also is ready to resolve security concerns through dialogue."

Certainly, the Bush administration's policy towards North Korea has been a dramatic departure from the Clinton administration. Towards the end of President Clinton's term, North Korea had agreed to extend a moratorium on new ballistic missile tests, had begun rapprochement with South Korea, and had expressed a willingness to further restrict or eliminate its nuclear and ballistic missile programs as part of the 1994 framework agreement with the U.S.

As Howard French of the New York Times reported in the Summer of 2000, "the emergence of the reclusive North Korean leader in the role of a jovial statesman was certain to challenge the image of North Korea as a 'rogue state' so dangerous that Washington is proposing to spend billions of dollars on an anti-missile system to defend against it." In response to the warming relations between North and South Korea, the Clinton administration had decided to ease some of the economic sanctions, and had dropped the label of "rogue state" to refer to North Korea in an attempt to form closer relations with the isolated nation.

But instead of picking up where Clinton left off, as Secretary of State Colin Powell had wanted to do, President Bush started his term by delaying further negotiations until his administration could conduct a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Initial Bush administration efforts to restart the talks with North Korea aroused skepticism when new demands were made in the area of conventional force reductions without indicating when or whether Washington would meet its original obligations under the framework agreement. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly's Oct. 3-5 trip to North Korea marked the first high-level contact between the two nations since Bush took office.

During the interim, President Bush had denounced North Korea as part of a new "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq. As Deputy Russian Foreign Minister, Georgi Mamedov noted, "We think that such statements may aggravate the situation and don't facilitate constructive solution of the nonproliferation issues."

Bush also introduced a new nuclear policy with severe implications for North Korea. As part of the Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon expanded the nuclear hit list to include a wide range of potential adversaries, such as North Korea, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, whether or not those nations possess nuclear weapons. The circumstances under which the use of nuclear weapons might be considered has also expanded beyond situations threatening the national survival of the United States to include retaliation for a North Korean attack on South Korea, or simply as a response to "surprising military developments." The new Bush doctrine also sanctions the first use of nuclear weapons to "dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends."

Up to this point, the Bush administration has shown little interest in engaging North Korea. Given North Korea's dire economic situation, the timing of the confession appears geared towards jump starting negotiations. Desperate for economic assistance and normalized relations, this is their only bargaining chip with the U.S.

"The U.S. is calling on North Korea to comply with all of its commitments under the Nonproliferation Treaty and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner," an American official said. However, one has to question whether the U.S. is meeting its own obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty. The Bush administration's decision to find new missions for nuclear weapons and develop "mini-nukes" violates the pledge made by nuclear-armed signatories of the treaty to take rapid steps to eliminate their nuclear arsenals in exchange for a pledge by non-nuclear nations to forswear the nuclear option.

The Bush administration should continue to work towards a verifiable multilateral agreement with North Korea to end their production of nuclear weapons and their production and export of ballistic missiles. Hostile words and disengagement have been the guiding principles of U.S. policy towards Pyongyang for the past two years, with little to show for it but the seeds of a new nuclear weapons program in North Korea and serious divisions between the United States and its key regional allies, Japan and South Korea.

Hopefully the Bush administration is serious about its willingness to give diplomacy a chance this time around. The principles behind the 1994 agreed framework agreement - political recognition and economic assistance to Pyongyang in exchange for verifiable steps to dismantle and terminate its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs - would be a good place to start. It's too bad the administration didn't think of this eighteen months ago, when Secretary of State Powell first suggested it.

Michelle Ciarrocca is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute in New York City. She is also co-author of "Axis of Influence: Behind the Bush Administration's Missile Defense Revival."