Author: Chung-in Moon, Yonsei University
On December 2, the United States Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, in a bipartisan report entitled ‘World at Risk’, listed the halting of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs as one of the biggest priorities in state affairs for the Obama administration when it takes office.
The report also highlights the fact that although peaceful solutions to the issue may be sought through diplomatic efforts such as direct negotiation, if these fail, the use of threats such as military activity must be considered.
But what is important at the present time is not a hard-line policy on the presumption of diplomatic failure but the refinement of a diplomatic solution.
There are two diplomatic courses available for future negotiations with North Korea. One of them is carrying out, within the framework of the six-party talks, the negotiations for ,verifiable dismantlement’, the third stage of the February 13 agreement that is a political legacy left behind by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill. The other is the method of starting anew with the ‘broad-minded’ negotiations with the North halted because of the Bush administration’s ‘ABC’ (Anything But Clinton) policy. This would be an extension of the October 2000 North Korea visit of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
To be frank, the former approach offers little guarantee of success.
Assistant Secretary of State Hill employed his outstanding imagination and diplomatic ability to seek breakthroughs in negotiations with the North in states of crisis. Under the Obama administration, it will not only be difficult to find someone to replace Hill, but even if they do, that person is liable to become a sacrifice to the hotbed of Washington bureaucratic politics if he or she produces a response at the level of the Assistant Secretary of State. The United States could end up once again making an everyday practice of the same, dull ‘tit-for-tat’ negotiations steeped in bureaucratic inertia, while Pyongyang responds with its ‘salami strategy’ (developing its negotiation cards), leading to another state of crisis, like a second nuclear test, as the negotiations fall into an impasse.
As President-elect Obama has emphasized on numerous occasions, the time has come now to break out of the past bureaucratic negotiation practices with the North Korean nuclear issue and find a solution through the opposite approach, with broad-minded diplomatic thinking. Indeed, the October 2000 visit of Madeleine Albright to North Korea was a reconnaissance survey for a visit by then-President Bill Clinton. As an extension of that, Obama should send former President Clinton to North Korea as a special envoy early in his term and seek a historic reversal. If, as a special envoy, Clinton presents a specific plan for verifiable nuclear dismantlement while communicating the Obama administration’s message that it is prepared to sign a basic pact for the easing of hostile U.S.-North Korea relations and the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries, I believe that North Korea will present a corresponding response.
The core of the message shown to Pyongyang here is that the normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations is not just the final stage of negotiations, but can be offered as an incentive in the early stages of verifiable nuclear dismantlement as well. At the current round of six-party talks in Beijing, diplomatic relations between the United States and Pyongyang are a card worthy of consideration as recompense for accepting a specific schedule for dismantlement as they enter the third stage following basic agreement on a verification protocol, including the extraction of samples, surveillance activity and access to suspected nuclear facilities. This follows in line with the authenticity of the ‘change’ emphasized by the Obama team thus far.
While the card of diplomatic relations can function as the most attractive lure for North Korea, it should also be kept in mind that the threat of severed diplomatic relations can be a more powerful means of pressure in the event of non-cooperation than military action. Such a good card should not be left until the last stage of negotiations.
An unconventional form of high-intensity, high-level diplomacy with Pyongyang that represents a departure from the current approach, including a North Korea visit by former President Clinton as a special envoy and the proposal of normalization of diplomatic relations, could put some new flexibility into the six-party talks and assist in the smooth execution of ‘verifiable nuclear dismantlement.’ One looks forward to President-elect Obama using broad-minded diplomacy to provide a turning point in the early resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.