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Nuclear Negotiations: North Korea

October 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: During meetings with Asian leaders this weekend, the Bush administration said it would consider giving North Korea security guarantees if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials said such an agreement must be in the context of talks among the U.S., the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia. At the same time, President Bush reiterated his refusal to sign a nonaggression treaty with North Korea.

With me to explain this latest development is Richard Solomon. He served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the first Bush Administration. He is now president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a research organization funded by the government. Well, what has the U.S. offered, and does it represent a shift from earlier Bush administration policy?

RICHARD SOLOMON: Ray, the administration has been struggling to deal with one of the most difficult proliferation issues that we and certainly the Asian region face today. It’s a kind of mirror image of the situation during the Clinton administration where the so-called agreed framework was negotiated after a major confrontation with the North Koreans over their nuclear program in 1994. And as things seem to be warming up with the North Koreans, you’ll remember that a senior military leader from Pyongyang visited President Clinton in the White House. Secretary of State Albright went to Pyongyang.

While that was all going on, we thought the situation was improving. The North Koreans had started a covert nuclear program, a uranium program in violation of earlier agreements, and the dilemma that the Bush administration is facing is how to deal with a regime that repeatedly violates or doesn’t implement agreements that they’ve reached.

RAY SUAREZ: So what has the president offered in this most recent communication?

RICHARD SOLOMON: What the president has done now is build a coalition of five other key countries whose security are directly affected by the North Korean actions, and said to the North Koreans, there is united agreement that you have to give up your nuclear weapons programs. If you will do so, then we will guarantee your security through one mechanism or another.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the president has been very careful not to call this a treaty. As a matter of fact, he referred to it as an agreement with a small “A.” Why does he reiterate that posture?

RICHARD SOLOMON: Well, first of all, I think politically it’s very unlikely you could get the Senate to ratify a treaty. It would set a very bad precedent. We don’t have nonaggression treaties of this sort with any other country. And secondly, it would just be much more effective, even from the North Korean point of view, if there was a multilateral context which guaranteed their security. At the Institute of Peace, we’ve put forward one idea which was based on the fact that the Korean War was a United Nations police action. That was of course in the early ’50s. And if the North Koreans really want to have peace and security, isn’t the right way to do it is to end the Korean War with a United Nations sanctioned peace agreement?

That’s one approach. And indeed, what the administration has now started to do with this five group of countries is lay the basis for some collective way of trying not only to guarantee North Korea’s security, but South Korea’s security as well, through some settlement of the Korean War.

RAY SUAREZ: What do the North Koreans want? And is this offer from George W. Bush likely to meet some of their prerequisites?

RICHARD SOLOMON: The North Korean situation is very complex, but basically, you have a regime with a failed economy, that the presumed workers’ paradise that Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jung Il, have created basically is a failure. The Chinese and Russians back in the late ’80s were begging Kim Il Sung to start a process of economic reform. He refused to do so. They cut off their economic subsidies to the North, and that started a slide that has led to what was a great famine in the mid-1990s, in which 10 or 15 percent of the population either died of the effects of starvation or malnutrition.

So the North has to somehow face up to the fact that their system has failed, and they’re quite afraid that given their own record of the use of violence against the South, against us, that the international community won’t tolerate their system. So they first want security. And the second thing they would like, of course, is economic assistance, but without any strings attached. They’re not going to get that. And we’re apparently entering a period where there’s going to be a very lively, probably a very extended negotiation over the terms under which some security guarantee would be given, and the terms under which they would get more economic assistance.

RAY SUAREZ: Into the midst of this weekend and its diplomatic statements comes, what, a North Korean missile test?

RICHARD SOLOMON: Right. Well, it’s classic North Korean behavior. At the institute, we’ve done a study of their negotiating behavior, and it’s very consistent, even though people say they’re crazy because of their use of threats, their use of force. But they see themselves as a very small, beleaguered country. They’ve got half the population of the South. They’ve got one-thirteenth of the per capita income. So they feel very vulnerable. And the way they have tried to protect themselves is by having some source of threat. And they’ve threatened the security of the South and our troops there with missiles, with artillery, threatened the survival of hundreds of thousands of people in Seoul, and they’re now trying to expand that sense of threat with the nuclear program. This is why people are skeptical that even if you negotiate some kind of elimination of their nuclear program, that in fact they will not, consistent with their past behavior, actually implement the agreement.

RAY SUAREZ: In their reactions to previous American overtures, they’ve said time and time again that they want to deal one-on-one with the United States, which the United States has refused, bringing in these other regional partners.


RAY SUAREZ: Who’s the lead player? Who has influence in North Korea that the United States would like to have the cooperation of?

RICHARD SOLOMON: Well, the Chinese, who in some sense may have the most influence, always will say that their influence is very limited, and they probably know whereof they speak. The North Koreans are very tough. They see themselves as a group of people who have been run over in history by all sorts of major powers, and so they’re very resistant to any other external influence. That said, the Chinese probably have the most economic and political influence of any other country. The Chinese have good reasons to want to stabilize the situation on the peninsula. Large numbers of refugees fleeing the economic privation of the North have already come out, and many of them at a fairly high level.

The Chinese do not want to see the North proliferating, because if the North gets nuclear weapons, will that provoke the Japanese to rearm through nuclear weapons, et cetera? So the Chinese have a lot at stake. And they have more recently faced up to the fact that they have to get more actively involved here than the United States. We are probably the other country that has the most influence because of our ability to affect the security and the economic circumstances in the North of any other country except China.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Solomon, thanks a lot.