Latest US Position on North Korea
By Tong Kim
Three weeks since the DPRK failed to meet the deadline for fulfilling the February 13 initial actions agreement under the six party talks, President George W. Bush is still committed to reaching a diplomatic solution for the complete dismantlement of all North Korea's nuclear programs and weapons. His administration sees it possible to accomplish this goal during its term, if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il makes the strategic decision to give up his nuclear weapons.
President Bush does not know whether Kim Jong-il will give up his nuclear weapons even after he dismantles the nuclear programs and facilities. He said in a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week at Camp David; ``there's still time for the North Korean leader to make the right choice,'' a point echoed by his ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, who spoke to a public audience in Seoul last Friday, May 4.
The expectation that the American president will not settle for less than the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in North Korea should help ease some academic concerns that the United States might accept a partial solution, by getting rid of North Korea's nuclear programs, but allowing Pyongyang to keep the weapons it has produced, if an assurance against the transfer of such weapons to a third state or a non-state organization is guaranteed.
In tune with Abe's hard line stance, Bush said patience is ``not unlimited'' on North Korea's delay in implementing the first phase of the initial action agreement. A few days earlier secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said, ``We don't have endless patience,'' yet expecting the North to fulfill its obligations. Vershbow said, ``I can't say when our patience will run out.''
Interestingly enough, Assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill said during his talk to an audience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington last week, ``We need more patience.''
Standing by Abe, Bush also said, ``...if it looks like the North Korean leader is not going to honor his agreement, we now have a structure...to continue to provide a strong message to the North Korean. We have the capability of more sanctions...we've got a strategy to make sure that the pressure we've initially applied is even greater.''
The delay in implementation for the first phase of the February 13 agreement is faulted on the ``technicalities'' involved in the transfer of North Korea's funds at Banco Delta Asia. Hill said in Washington that the banking issue will be resolved in ``a matter of days,'' adding that he did not think the North Koreans are trying to use the banking issue ``in order to avoid their nuclear obligations.''
But President Bush, while refuting the criticism that his current policy is soft on the North, said the North Koreans will have ``no more excuse for (not) moving forward'' when the financial arrangement is clarified.
Once the transfer of funds is completed, the Bush administration obviously expects the DPRK to shut down and seal its nuclear facilities and bring back IAEA inspectors. It hopes the six party talks will then move to its second phase of the February 13 agreement, during which the DPRK is obliged to disable its nuclear facilities and issue a declaration of all its nuclear programs and weapons.
Vershbow said the shutting down should take a few weeks and the disablement a few months, whereas Hill on the same day was quoted as saying the disablement work would take just ``weeks not months.'' Hill also said he expects the second phase to be completed by the end of this year.
Now Washington is openly talking about a third and final phase _ for the actual dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programs and weapons. Both Vershbow and Hill believe that the final phase can also be completed in months and early enough for the Bush administration to successfully conclude other related negotiations for the normalization of bilateral relations between the United States and the DPRK as well as a peace regime to replace the armistice agreement. If everything goes well, these negotiations would proceed in parallel with the implementation of the denuclearization process and the provision of economic aid to the North.
Despite the subtle or not so subtle differences in nuance and subtext between the statements by President Bush and his people, it is clear that the United States will stick to its diplomatic effort to push for nuclear dismantlement, unless the North Korean leader sabotages the nuclear process altogether, either by a deliberate delay or by conceiving an unrealistic notion that he would be able to improve relations with Washington while holding on to the weapons already developed that will give him the status of a nuclear power.
Even if Kim Jong Il has not made up to give up his nuclear weapons down to the last one, the participants in the multilateral nuclear talks should proceed with the assumption that the DPRK will honor its agreement. Otherwise there is no need to continue with the talks.
The failure of implementing the initial actions agreement has caused the loss of the momentum of the 6 party talks. Whether the future rounds of talks can pick up speed to make up the time lost, as Mr. Hill says, remains to be seen.
In my personal view, the North Korean leader will give up all his nuclear programs and weapons under the right conditions and at the right time. The right conditions would include mutual trust between the U.S. and the DPRK and a security and political environment in which the survival of his regime is secured. It is not impossible that the right time could come during the Bush administration.
There are a number of good reasons for him to give them up: (1) Kim Jong Il wants normalization with the United States and economic improvement, (2) China wants a denuclearized Korean peninsula, (3) Tougher sanctions would aggravate the economic plight of his country, (4) His nuclear advantage would be offset by regional nuclear proliferation with Japan, Taiwan and even South Korea all developing nuclear weapons, a nightmare scenario for China and the United States, (5) Denuclearization is his father Kim Il-sung's will. What's your take?
Tong Kim is former senior interpreter at the U.S. State Department and now a research professor at Korea University and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).