North Korea has a nuclear arsenal of perhaps 20 weapons and hundreds of short and medium-range missiles, some of which are probably capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Its leaders have threatened many times to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames.” They’ve fired salvos of medium-range missiles that landed in Japanese waters in the Sea of Japan. They’ve claimed to develop a missile capable of reaching the United States. And they’ve shown animated videos showing these missiles destroying U.S. cities.
How did we get to this dangerous state of affairs?
The U.S. has been trying unsuccessfully for more than two decades to stop the development of a nuclear arsenal in North Korea. In 1994, when I was secretary of defense, President Bill Clinton took the position that the U.S. would not permit North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal, and that position almost resulted in a second Korean War. Indeed, I prepared contingency plans for striking the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon and for reinforcing our troops in South Korea with tens of thousands more. Instead, we were able to resolve that dispute with diplomacy, resulting in the Agreed Framework, under which the North Koreans shut down the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, where they were in the process of making plutonium for nuclear bombs.
China fears North Korea could cause South Korea or Japan to go nuclear.
But when North Korea started testing long-range missiles in the late 1990s, a crisis arose again. I was President Clinton’s special envoy to address the problem, and after a few months of study in partnership with South Korea and Japan, I went to Pyongyang to negotiate an agreement that would require North Korea to give up its programs to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In return, South Korea and Japan would provide economic assistance, and the U.S. would provide security assurances.
The discussions were encouraging. Kim Jong Il sent his senior military officer to meet President Clinton in October 2000 to discuss a formal agreement. We were quite close to reaching final terms, but time ran out. When George W. Bush came to office in 2001, he cut off all discussions with North Korea.
Later, he agreed with China to begin the so-called six-party talks to deal with the increasingly dangerous nuclear program in North Korea. The net result of many years of six-party talks is that North Korea has built a small nuclear arsenal, conducted successful tests of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles and engaged in increasingly threatening rhetoric.
So what can we — what should we — do to resolve this crisis now.
China could provide powerful 'sticks' in any negotiation by threatening to withdraw food and fuel support.
During the crisis in 1994, we seriously considered a preemptive strike on Yongbyon, which would have destroyed North Korea’s reactor and all fuel there and probably set back their program a decade. Although this contingency was far down the list of options, North Korea didn’t know that. The threat of that strike led Pyongyang to the bargaining table, and the result was the Agreed Framework, under which all activity at Yongbyon was shut down.
It is clear that today such a strike could not have the decisive result it would have had in 1994. Today, North Korea’s nuclear bombs already exist ― no doubt concealed and dispersed. Moreover, we think they have other nuclear facilities besides Yongbyon. Whether or not the 1994 strike was a good idea, the conditions that favored striking then do not exist today. If the U.S. conducted a preemptive military strike, it would trigger bloody reprisal attacks on Seoul, quite possibly leading to a second Korean war, this one entailing the use of nuclear weapons.
Our history of diplomacy with North Korea has been dismal, so what reason is there to think that a new round of diplomacy could be successful? I believe that there is now an opportunity for creative diplomacy that has not previously existed. This opportunity has opened because China is now more deeply concerned than in the past about the damaging consequences of the North’s nuclear program. China thinks it’s possible that it could cause South Korea or Japan to go nuclear, which would be detrimental to China’s core interests. China clearly understands all the dangers that would be entailed in a regional war.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan together could provide powerful 'carrots.'
The U.S. could seize this opportunity not by insisting that China should solve the problem but by working together with China to solve it. China could provide powerful “sticks” in any negotiation by threatening to withdraw food and fuel support ― while the U.S., South Korea and Japan together could provide powerful “carrots.” The U.S. could offer security assurances and South Korea could offer economic assistance, typified by the joint North-South manufacturing facility at Kaesong. Just last week, a new president was elected in South Korea. During his campaign, he spoke of the importance of reopening dialogue with North Korea, so this may be a propitious time in South Korea for a diplomatic approach.
If these countries could agree on a common negotiating strategy, they could put together a much stronger negotiating position than we have ever had before. Some of those carrots and sticks could be used to achieve a freeze in testing, which would itself be a great security. And in time, with the whole package of incentives, we could hope to achieve a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula.
We now have the opportunity for a new approach to diplomacy. Will we have the wisdom to seize it?