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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Preserving the North Korean Threat
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

In deciding not to continue the Clinton administration's efforts to curb the North Korean ballistic missile program, President George W. Bush has gratuitously rejected a promising opportunity to improve U.S. security. In fact, the decision is so irrationally contrary to U.S. security interests that it is widely perceived internationally as intended to preserve, and even enhance, the North Korean ballistic missile threat so that it can serve as the rationale for early deployment of a national missile defense (NMD). This devastating assessment of U.S. motivation will only be refuted if the Bush administration's promised review of its North Korea policy leads to a prompt resumption of the deferred negotiations to stop Pyongyang's development and export of ballistic missiles.

The decision was apparently taken with little or no consultation with South Korea or Japan, the front-line states with the most at stake in U.S. missile policy toward North Korea. This latest example of disregard for the concerns of allies on the ballistic missile issue was underscored by the choice of the meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, the principal architect of South Korea's policy of reconciliation with North Korea, as the venue for the short shrift of a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean ballistic missile issue. Kim was clearly very embarrassed politically at being blindsided and used as the backdrop for Bush's deferral decision.

Despite half a century of extremely difficult relations with North Korea, experience does not support Bush's hesitation in pursuing diplomacy with Pyongyang. At a time of extreme tension, the United States was able to negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze the North Korean nuclear weapons program and provided for the phased elimination of the facilities that had been shut down. Without this arrangement, the world would today face a North Korea armed with several tens of nuclear weapons and could look forward shortly to a North Korean nuclear arsenal numbering in the hundreds. Building on this experience, the United States sought a similar arrangement curbing the North Korean ballistic missile program. By the end of the Clinton administration, negotiations had progressed to the point—characterized by U.S. Ambassador Wendy Sherman as "tantalizingly close"—to allow Clinton to contemplate going to Pyongyang to close the deal. Although time ran out on the immediate negotiation, the makings of a deal remain on the table. But this window of opportunity may well close because, in announcing its moratorium on missile testing, North Korea declared that its ban would last only as long as negotiations continued.

In rejecting Secretary of State Colin Powell's proposal, made the day before, that the Bush administration should take up the negotiations with North Korea where the Clinton administration left off, Bush suggested that it was not possible to negotiate with Pyongyang on the issue since an agreement required "complete verification" and Pyongyang may not be honoring existing agreements. Actually, Pyongyang has kept its side of the bargain in the Agreed Framework on its nuclear program as well as the United States has. As to verification, U.S. national technical means alone can monitor the critical elements of a ballistic missile agreement bearing most significantly on U.S. security. The tests required for the development of long-range missiles are easily detectable, and the export of North Korean ballistic missiles on a scale that would affect U.S. security would also soon be apparent.

If an agreement included a ban on all missile production and the elimination of existing missiles, additional verification measures would indeed be necessary. But, as desirable as these constraints would be, they need not be absolutely comprehensive to provide high confidence that the North Korean missile program had in fact been adequately constrained. Indeed, working out a mutually acceptable balance of obligations and verification measures is what negotiations are all about.

Whatever one may think about the need for a national missile defense, the United States will be far better off preventing the further development and unlimited production of North Korean ballistic missiles for the next decade before the enhanced NMD, which Bush apparently advocates, can possibly become operational. President Bush should therefore promptly revisit his decision to defer resumption of ballistic missile talks with North Korea and follow Powell's wise advice to resume the negotiations with the objective of reaching an early, adequately verified agreement. The United States cannot afford to be perceived as being prepared to sacrifice the opportunity to eliminate the North Korean missile program diplomatically in order to preserve the threat of a growing North Korean missile capability as a rationale for undertaking a major national missile defense.