Is North Korea Ready to Talk?

by Kevin Carmody | 4/21/03 5:00am

Amid the news channels' constant coverage of liberated Iraqis dancing in the streets celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, there has been comparatively little notice of an important development on the Korean peninsula. Recently, North Korea has made a significant reversal on its foreign policy, announcing that it will be willing to engage in multilateral talks regarding its development of nuclear weapons. Since October, when the United States demanded that North Korea cease development of uranium fuel rods which can be used to produce fissible material for nuclear weapons, North Korea has expelled weapons inspectors and demanded that any discussions regarding its compliance with international treaty obligations regarding the development of nuclear weapons occur on a bilateral basis and involve only the United States.

The North Korean reversal and decision to accept multilateral talks is important for two reasons. First, involving other nations in the region -- China in particular -- is important for spreading the responsibility for containing North Korea to countries other than the United States. Tension on the Korean peninsula is a regional problem, however, and while American military support is necessary for the security of the South, on a diplomatic basis, a regional resolution to the 40-year standoff will be more workable.

Now that North Korea has developed missiles that can be loaded with weapons of mass destruction and hit targets in Japan and throughout East Asia, the immediacy of the potential threat makes a regional solution even more important. China's historic ties with North Korea give that country unique leverage on the peninsula. Concurrently, China's international economic ambitions also make it opposed to any destabilization on its borders. China can be an important ally by helping to bridge the gap between the United States and North Korea. A gradual normalization of relations with North Korea will be far more successful if neighboring countries work together to provide a framework for the North's integration into the region on a political and economic basis.

Moreover, a regional solution establishes that North Korea under Kim Jong Il is indeed acting as a pariah state, and that flagrant violations of United Nations mandates are actions to which all of Asia and the world objects, not just the US and Japan. The humanitarian crisis in North Korea further makes it an international concern. Due to the leadership's wasteful policies and its pursuit of arms instead of food, hundreds of thousands of Koreans have died from famine in the last decade. Not unlike in Iraq, there are both geo-strategic and humanitarian issues that need to be addressed, and by doing so on a multilateral basis, the impression that it is the United States alone opposing North Korea can be avoided.

The second reason that the North's decision to accept multilateral talks is significant is that it did so in acquiescence to U.S. demands. For months, critics of Bush's firm stance on rejecting bilateral negotiations in favor of talks involving other regional powers complained that the United States was wasting an opportunity to sit down at the table with the North. Observing the willingness of the United States to engage in an internationally unpopular liberation of Iraq, the North recognized that the demand for multilateral talks was one the United States took seriously. It was not American military power as such that caused the reconsideration, but rather American commitment to holding autocrats responsible for violating arms control agreements.

The United States and North Korea have been involved for several months in a tense diplomatic standoff, but the North blinked. If the United States had granted the North the bilateral talks it wanted, it would have been engaging in positive reinforcement: rewarding North Korea for its belligerency. The last time the United States established bilateral talks was in 1994, when accords were reached requiring the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The North blatantly violated these restrictions. By again granting bilateral negotiations, the U.S. would have shown the North that it could continue to buck international demands and not face repercussions. Instead the United States demonstrated that belligerency would not result in American cooperation. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the North Korean announcement, as it may represent a fundamental shift in bilateral relations. Notably, it is not U.S. force that caused the North's change of heart, but rather its resilience.

The prospect of multilateral talks came about in large part because of the administration's unwillingness to reward irresponsible behavior. While so many criticize the Bush foreign policy as dangerous, in actuality, it uses determination to show autocrats that defiance of treaty obligations and deliberate threatening of neighbor states with weapons of mass destruction is unacceptable. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, and the President recognizes its mandate to use that power not as the world's police, but to hold despots accountable. That policy worked in Iraq, and it seems well on the way to working in North Korea. Iraqis, North Koreans, and the cause of international peace all stand to benefit.