The North Korean Conundrum | The Nation


The North Korean Conundrum

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If John Kerry is elected and reshapes Korea policy next January, he should carefully consider some of the ideas in Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: How to Deal With a Nuclear North Korea. Michael O'Hanlon and Mike Mochizuki propose a "grand bargain" in which North Korea would get $2 billion in aid per year for a decade, mostly from Japan but including some $300 million from the United States. In return, it would agree to complete and verifiable denuclearization over "a course of years"; an end to the testing, production, deployment and export of medium- and long-range missiles; and sweeping cuts of at least 50 percent in all major types of its heavy weaponry, as part of a broad arms control agreement in which the United States and South Korea would also cut their conventional forces in Korea.

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Selig S. Harrison
Selig S. Harrison is the author, with Diego Cordovez, of Out of Afghanistan and author of In Afghanistan's Shadow. He...

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O'Hanlon and Mochizuki's arms control proposal is their most valuable contribution, though the terms suggested would have to be modified to make the deal equitable and acceptable to North Korea. For example, it is the qualitative superiority of US air power based in Korea that makes North Korea vulnerable to a US pre-emptive attack, and explains its massive forward deployment of tanks and artillery as a deterrent. Yet the proposed cuts in aircraft are frankly designed to retain this superiority. "For allied forces," they suggest, "the net loss in capability as a result of the arms control proposal would be less in percentage terms" than that of the North. This is calculated to make their proposal more palatable to the Pentagon, but it makes it a nonstarter in Pyongyang.

As described by O'Hanlon and Mochizuki, their "grand bargain" goes beyond "carrots and sticks" to what they call "steaks and sledgehammers." But this approach is simply a new and more sophisticated variant of US efforts for the past decade to use the normalization of relations with Pyongyang as a reward for the cessation of its nuclear program. After repeated failures, it is clearly time to reassess this approach, which is what John Feffer does in his lucid, hard-hitting overview, North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. Feffer visited both North Korea and South Korea frequently and represented the American Friends Service Committee in Northeast Asia. He has produced a perceptive, gracefully written book placing the nuclear crisis in a broader policy perspective that embraces the peninsula as a whole, all in 173 easily digestible pages.

The United States should uncouple normalization and denuclearization, Feffer concludes, and "immediately begin the process of establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea. Rather than a bargaining chip, normalized relations thus become a framework for addressing all outstanding U.S.-North Korean issues." My own visits to North Korea, eight since 1972, support his view that "North Korea will not likely feel secure enough to relinquish its nuclear deterrent if it forever remains an outlier, and normalization is an important step toward a future in which North Korea is unlikely to use whatever weapons of destruction it possesses." The idea of uncoupling the nuclear issue from normalization has also been suggested by an influential Japanese security expert, Masashi Nishihara, director of the National Defense Academy in Tokyo.

With six other Americans, including two former US ambassadors to South Korea, I recently participated in a three-day dialogue with a high-level North Korean delegation headed by Jo Sung Ju, American Affairs director in the Foreign Ministry. Repeatedly, the North Koreans emphasized that "coexistence" is the key to resolving the nuclear crisis. What North Korea wants above all, they said, is a formal security guarantee that would not only revoke the threat of a pre-emptive US attack but would also pledge to "respect the sovereignty" of North Korea by abandoning the often-stated goal of regime change.

"Why would we need nuclear weapons if we no longer feel threatened?" asked one. "Why would we give up our right to have them if you keep talking about regime change? It's as simple as that."

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