DISARMING STRANGERS: NUCLEAR DIPLOMACY WITH NORTH KOREA

Professor Leon V. Sigal

Social Science Research Council and Columbia University

May 7, 1998

A new prevailing orthodoxy on American defense policy is emerging: US prestige and power is suffering because of a reluctance to use force abroad in the post-Cold War era. Adversaries will doubt our credibility because of such hesitation on our part. This orthodoxy is commonplace among defense specialists, realist academics, and pundits. It is also wrong.

Instead, the U.S. has repeatedly hurt its national interests because it has trouble cooperating with strangers. Rather than considering the prospects for cooperation, the US has repeatedly relied on threats. Clearly, cooperation and conciliation will not always solve international problems. However, they can often work and are, in general, cheap. Reliance on cooperative policies to resolve international disputes is particularly important in cases of strong countries dealing with weak countries and with issues of non-proliferation.

With regard to non-proliferation, US policy has focused on the supply side. While supply restrictions can buy time and provide early warning, they will invariably fail in the end. Nations decide to pursue nuclear weapons out of profound insecurity. Raising the cost to them of obtaining nuclear weapons (and in truth, this is all supply management policies can do) will be unlikely to change their goals. Instead, the US needs to focus on demand management, reducing the attractiveness of nuclear weapons.

The diplomacy surrounding the potential North Korean proliferation problem that peaked in 1994 provides an excellent example of this point. Broadly, from 1991 through mid-1994 the North Koreans had not shut down their reactors (that would have allowed them to divert fissile material) nor had they engaged in any reprocessing, and they allowed the IAEA to verify these facts. All of this was contrary to the worst fears of many in the foreign policy establishment who had expected much more concerted efforts by the North Koreans to pursue their nuclear weapons program. Yet, the United States ignored these relatively benign signs and ratcheted up pressure. By the summer of that year, this situation had deteriorated to the point where the two sides were only a few steps away from going to war. Once both sides had stepped back from the brink, they were able to, within a mere four months, come to an agreement that has essentially satisfied all sides.

This case is a story of the failure of coercive policies. Accounting for this failure are four dangerous images held by essential policymakers in the U.S. and those who try to influence them. First, they believe that proliferation is too difficult to prevent once a state has made its decision to pursue nuclear weapons. Once policymakers hold this view, senior decisionmakers will not bother to focus on the issue. This leaves it to the discretion of mid-level bureaucrats. They, however, are not able to draw together attractive packages of conciliatory policies that might induce cooperation from the would-be proliferant. Second, policy makers viewed North Korea as a rogue state. This image made it easy for policymakers to ascribe worst case intentions and capabilities in situations of uncertainty. And in this case, uncertainty about North Korea is pervasive. Third, policymakers believed that the main proliferation threat comes from such rogue states, rather than from Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, which may pose greater proliferation risks by stimulating neighbors to acquire the Bomb and by serving as sources for nuclear know-how and technology. Finally, policymakers believed that the proliferation problem can best be addressed by threats, sanctions, and isolation of the potential proliferant. This made consideration of other options problematic within the US foreign policy decision-making bureaucracies.

Returning to the case in a bit more detail, the period between 1991 and 1994 can be characterized as one of diplomatic deadlock. During this period most in the U.S. felt there was little prospect for progress. Two groups of so called experts contributed to this mistaken view. First were the American experts on North Korea. These scholars and analysts generally get their information from South Korea and the South Korean intelligence community in particular. Not surprisingly, this tends to produce worst case analysis concerning North Korea. Furthermore, this reliance on South Korean sources created a bias within this group of experts: they tended to focus primarily on doing what the South thinks best rather than focusing on the proliferation issue, per se. These North Korean experts were not thinking very broadly about North Korean rationales for getting into the crisis, nor sounding out alternative approaches for dealing with the North.

The second group of experts who contributed to the failure of the American policy during this period were the non-proliferation experts. These can be divided into two groups. The first group is distinguished by a crime-and-punishment approach. They looked to the IAEA to strengthen its policies vis--vis the North. The second group was more pessimistic: they simply dismissed the IAEA as feckless and incapable of playing a major role in the resolution of the crisis. Neither of these groups recognized the key problem: the IAEA was too inflexible in its dealings with the North.

Coupled with these problems affecting the experts who were advising policymakers, there were several factors that raised political costs substantially to any policymaker who might have been inclined to pursue a more conciliatory policy in this area. Congressional opposition to conciliatory policies was very high. Second, positive inducements were viewed by many as bribes that would undercut the IAEA. This view was particularly damaging as it was so obviously mistaken: nearly all of our successes in dealing with proliferants have come from efficacious use of positive inducements (e.g., Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, and Kazakhstan).

Because of these impediments, for four years the U.S. was unwilling to engage in the diplomatic give-and-take. On the rare occasions when we did participate in direct negotiations we were unwilling to offer specific, contingent promises—the foundations for diplomatic progress. On the rare occasions that we did make promises, we (the US, the IAEA, or the South Koreans) did not live up to our end of the bargain. Not surprisingly, the North was unwilling to give away their nascent nuclear program for nothing. In essence, the North was playing an effective game of tit-for-tat, reciprocate when we cooperated and retaliate when we renege. Much of the evidence of North Korean mischief that was reported in the western press was preceded by a renege by the US or one of its negotiating partners.

In the end, the US simply exhausted its options on the threatening side of the equation. The only set of sanctions that would have had an effect on the North would have been tight restrictions on the flow of oil. China, in particular, but also South Korea, Japan and Russia made it clear that this policy would not be implemented. The only other option on the threat side was an outright invasion. The American military communicated its opposition to this policy through its estimates of casualties: 300,000-500,000 in the first ninety days.

The eventual resolution of the crisis can be traced to conciliatory steps that were taken on the Track Two—that is, the non-governmental—level. When former President Carter went to Pyongyang, he went to advance a policy, not to merely gather information as is often done in Track Two situations. Instead, Carter publicly repudiated sanctions by making it clear that he believed that the makings of a deal existed, but that the threat of sanctions was hindering the prospects for progress. In making this public, Carter effectively ended the chance that the Security Council would vote for sanctions (it had particular effect on the South Koreans and the Japanese). With the recession of the sanction possibility, war too became less likely.

Once the options on the threatening side of the ledger were exhausted, the US tried cooperation. These bore fruit in only four months. The agreement that was reached in October of 1994 satisfied all U.S. objectives. It has faced significant opposition at times from the South and has been haltingly implemented. Nevertheless, it has weathered these challenges as well as the more acute problems of the downed American helicopter north of the DMZ and the grounded DPRK submarine in the South.

This positive side of this story need not end here. Today there is a real prospect for further improvement of relations in Korea. The possibility of more comprehensive agreements that might include conventional forces and ballistic missiles cannot be excluded. However, to consolidate our past successes and to prepare the way for these future successes, the US will not only have to uphold its side of past bargains but also seek much more comprehensive economic and political engagement with North Korea. The US has continued not to come through on its promises. (For instance, the US—because of congressional opposition—has not provided the heavy fuel oil to the North that it promised it would.) Continued advancement of American interests in this region of the world—and in other areas—will require renewed attention to the potential of cooperative inducements over hostile threats.

Professor Leon Sigal is a scholar at the Social Science Research Council and also serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. In his distinguished career, Sigal has also taught at Wesleyan College and served on the editorial board of the New York Times.

Christopher P. Twomey — Rapporteur

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