Not a Choice
By Wendy R. Sherman
In the aftermath of former President Bill Clinton's humanitarian mission to North Korea, several analyses of the Obama administration's North Korea policy have suggested that the administration is faced with a choice between containment and denuclearization, and that it is choosing containment.
This is a false dichotomy and the wrong premise. We must do both ― strive to end North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions while containing its ability to proliferate nuclear know-how, materials or weapons.
There is no question that the objective of the United States must be the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Even if we doubt ― and there is plenty of reason for doubt ― that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear programs and the weapons we believe they possess, we cannot send any signal that the status quo is acceptable.
If we do, Japan and South Korea will have to rethink their nuclear strategy. And, Iran will surely believe that they, too, can proceed with impunity. Other countries worldwide will also reconsider their nuclear option, and we will all be much less safe than we are today.
A North Korea with nuclear weapons not only creates insecurity for the region and the world, but ― as President Clinton presumably told Chairman Kim Jong-il last week ― possession of nuclear weapons increases the North's isolation in the world and puts at risk North Korea's future instead of securing it.
Denuclearization is only one part of the puzzle. As the Obama Administration works with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to halt and eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons program, they must also stop any proliferation and ``contain" the damage that has been done over the last eight years.
During the Bush Administration, North Korea produced enough fissile material to produce eight or more bombs. As a result, an empowered North Korea has tested nuclear weapons and has flirted with the idea of sharing some of its capabilities with others.
Recently, a North Korean ship, seemingly headed to Myanmar, abruptly returned to the North, most likely out of fear of interdiction of its suspicious cargo under the newly enforced United Nations sanctions resolution. We know that North Korea also assisted Syria in the early development of a nuclear reactor, which was ultimately destroyed by Israel.
Such efforts at proliferation of knowledge, materials or weapons cannot be tolerated and must be contained, even as we strive for total elimination.
Critics of President Clinton's successful humanitarian mission to North Korea have alleged that Chairman Kim Jong-il gained credibility through a photo op. But the fact is that President Clinton and his team garnered critical information.
President Clinton can pass along to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton important information about Kim, including his health and his leadership position, about the North's readiness to return to talks and about the state of affairs in North Korea. Given the paltry information we have about North Korea, such insight is extremely valuable.
Both the reception received by President Clinton, along with other back channel signals seems to indicate that North Korea wants to engage once again. The administration should be ready to engage along the lines established. They should offer no new incentives. The North should return to talks ― bilateral talks only within a multilateral framework.
There should be evidence that the North will follow through on commitments they have already made, and existing U.N. sanctions should continue until there is appropriate verifiable action to meet commitments. And, the administration may want to consider a grand bargain that ends the often one step forward, three steps back negotiating process.
As the Administration prepares for the next round of negotiations toward the goal of eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons program, we cannot stop our efforts to contain its potential proliferation outside of the country.
Taking such a two pronged approach of working on both denuclearization and non-proliferation, has the added advantage of strengthening the United States' hand going into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiations in 2010. Only by tackling both objectives will we be able to show North Korea ― and others ― that nuclear weapons are not a route to economic, political or military security.
Ambassador Sherman served as counselor for the State Department as well as special advisor to former President Bill Clinton and policy coordinator on North Korea. She is currently vice chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group. She visited Pyongyang twice and participated in the meetings with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Kim Jong-il in 2000.