• U.S.

In Need of Good Faith

5 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

The smile campaign was in full bloom in North Korea, played out publicly with the help of CNN. A beaming and nodding Kim Il Sung was on view receiving former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on a “private visit” last week with all the ceremony and trappings appropriate to a serving head of state. More important — since Kim knew that Carter was in touch with Washington — they talked for six hours. Then Carter and Kim shared a hug reminiscent of the one Carter gave Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev at the SALT II signing in 1979.

Carter claimed a diplomatic breakthrough, reporting that North Korea would allow international inspectors to remain at the main nuclear installation in Yongbyon while “good-faith efforts” toward a settlement were resumed with the U.S. As the television cameras rolled, Carter told Kim the U.S. would suspend its effort to impose economic sanctions on North Korea.

Anxious onlookers were eager to conclude that the threat of war had been spiked and the tense dispute over Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program was safely back on the diplomatic track. It is too soon to reach that conclusion, and it could be mistaken. The White House quickly denied it was shutting down its sanctions campaign and asked for clarifications from North Korea. The world’s hopes for a peaceful settlement are certain to rise and fall in the coming weeks as the U.S. tries to discern whether Kim is ready for serious negotiations this time or simply out to diddle the West once again.

The Administration is prepared to go back to serious talks — if the North Koreans will first freeze their nuclear program. That means, explained Vice President Gore, they must not extract plutonium from the 8,000 fuel rods they have just removed from their 5-MW reactor at Yongbyon; they must not put new fuel rods into the reactor; they must keep the IAEA inspectors on duty “and allow them to function.”

The sanctions campaign the U.S. formally launched last week was about the past rather than the future. Because Pyongyang extracted the fuel rods abruptly and made it impossible for inspectors to track the reactor’s previous plutonium production, Washington is asking the U.N. Security Council to begin putting on pressure by banning North Korea’s arms trade, along with an end to U.N. technical and scientific assistance. If Pyongyang continues to stonewall on inspections, the U.S. will push for tougher sanctions with a full ban on trade and financial dealings. But if the North Koreans meet Washington’s requirements, the U.S. will resume the high-level talks and suspend the sanctions effort.

With Kim grinning and glad-handing on CNN, it might be tempting to assume he has finally decided to trade his nuclear program for a diplomatic and economic payoff from the West. But among Korea watchers, there are still two divergent interpretations of what Kim is really up to. One group takes the view that his nuclear program is a bargaining chip, the only aspect of North Korean society that makes it interesting to the world, and thus one to be sold at the highest possible price in recognition and aid. They argue that the U.S. should make the benefits of a deal for North Korea more explicit.

The other view is that Kim, an old-fashioned communist dictator, sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance for the survival of his regime and / the succession of his son Kim Jong Il. If this is correct, Kim’s repeated agreements to allow inspectors to work freely, and his subsequent refusals to live up to them, are part of a stalling game. His aim may be to string the West along until the end of the year, when he could have the plutonium for six or eight atom bombs — which might be enough to deter attack or blackmail a neighbor. By this theory, confrontation — even war — may be the only way to stop him.

No matter which of those theories is closer to the truth, Washington loses little by pursuing any diplomatic opening. As long as Kim allows the inspectors to keep track of the fuel rods, he cannot secretly process them to obtain plutonium for more bombs. But there is a tricky time element in this approach. The rods are still highly radioactive and cannot safely be reprocessed for a month or so. If theory No. 2 is correct, that downtime allows Kim to make many generous promises for the next few weeks, then rescind them as he chooses — perhaps including his proposal last week for a historic summit with South Korea. Only if or when the rods were to move into reprocessing would most of the doubts about Kim be resolved.

At that point, Clinton’s intentions will also have to come clear. Where does the U.S. draw its red line on North Korea? Clinton may be determined never to allow Kim to acquire any atom bombs. On the other hand, he may be unwilling to press North Korea any harder with sanctions than the reluctant Security Council will accept. He may not be prepared to resort to military force even if that is the only way to keep the Bomb out of Kim’s hands. Even if he does believe confrontation might ultimately be required, he can build global support only by trying every possible diplomatic step short of that. Possibly he has simply not thought it through. A pause now does not cost Washington any more than it costs Pyongyang. But if the fuel rods in Yongbyon begin to yield up their plutonium, Clinton could be forced to decide exactly how tough he will be.

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