Reaching Out To Pyongyang

A battle rages in Washington, uniting forces of left and right against a divided Bush administration over whether to compel North Korea to tell the detailed truth about its nuclear-weapons capabilities and its Syrian connection, or to allow the country to collapse as a pariah state. But our recent trip to the North Korean capital suggests that the current controversy conceals more fundamental issues in U.S. relations with North Korea: unlike the United States, Pyongyang has both a short- and long-term policy toward its antagonist. It is willing to bargain away its nuclear-weapons programs piece by piece starting now, but only in return for a new, nonhostile relationship with Washington and more help for its economy. Washington, by contrast, has focused solely on the issue of denuclearization (and even on that Washington remains divided) and has no broader approach to North Korea. It falls to the next administration, one hopes, to devise a strategy toward Pyongyang that addresses both the nuclear program and the long-term question of how to deal with the weak but dangerous nation.

This is not to deny the recent achievements, only to put them in context. After six years of ideological posturing, the Bush administration followed the Clinton administration in trading goodies to halt North Korea's illicit weapons programs. Under a multistage agreement reached in February 2007 in the Six-Party Talks, North Korea has stopped producing plutonium at Yongbyon and the facility is finally being disabled. Once the process is completed later this year, North Korea will no longer be able to quickly regain its plutonium-production capability.

North Korea has also recently provided the West an inventory of its nuclear programs that, while not publicly divulged, is believed to include information on its plutonium stockpiles and maybe its weapons as well. U.S. and North Korean negotiators have also reportedly agreed on formulas—causing all the controversy—for handling North Korea's alleged nuclear dealings with Syria and its alleged uranium-enrichment program. In exchange, the Bush administration has promised to remove North Korea from its list of terrorist sponsors and to end some trade sanctions. If the current phase can be completed, the next phase of negotiations is expected to cover the dismantling of the reactor and the verification of Pyongyang's plutonium holdings. The recent flap in Washington over the extent of North Korea's aid to Syria should not obstruct the critical task: capping Pyongyang's production of plutonium and getting North Korea to give up its stockpile of plutonium and weapons.

Ensuring that North Korea does not continue to produce plutonium is critical. But it will not be easy to persuade Pyongyang to give up the fissile material it has already produced. Officials in Pyongyang made it clear to us that complete denuclearization—a North Korean agreement to give up all nuclear weapons and plutonium stocks—is not in the near future. That's because, from the North's perspective, the negotiations with Washington are about far more than just nuclear weapons. Pyongyang sees its arsenal as a means to an end, not an end in itself—something U.S. leaders never understand.

What North Korea wants more than anything is "political compensation," a relationship with Washington, in which the United States would stop making threats, drop all sanctions and start treating North Korea as a friendly country. As Pyongyang sees it, such moves would finally allow it to join the global economic community—key to its survival. Until then, North Korea will hold on to its nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against a U.S. attack and, more important, the threat that Washington will simply ignore North Korea and allow it to starve in the dark. What this means in practical terms is that Pyongyang won't give up its nukes until it's sure Washington has permanently abandoned its "hostile policies," and "mutual trust" has been established. This will require, among other things, establishing diplomatic relations and striking a peace agreement that formally ends the Korean War.

The next U.S. president will have to decide how to deal with North Korea in a larger sense, not just on the nuclear question. We think the best approach would be to forge ahead with the denuclearization process while also working with the other members of the Six-Party Process to begin to build a web of connections tying North Korea to the regional and global economies. This would likely involve some economic subsidies for North Korea, including more humanitarian aid, energy assistance and investment in the rebuilding of the economy. Such a deal, which would permit North Korea to continue its internal repressive policies, would be no easy sell politically in the United States. But it would, at a minimum, reduce the threat of further proliferation and improve the chances of getting North Korea to give up its plutonium and weapons. There are no guarantees, but this approach would be far better than waiting around and hoping North Korea will collapse. That is no real policy at all, and rest assured North Korea knows how to get our attention.