"You have learned to live with other nuclear powers," said Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, leaning forward over the dinner table in Pyongyang. "So why not us? We really want to coexist with the United States peacefully, but you must learn to coexist with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons."
"That doesn't sound like you are serious when you talk about denuclearization," I replied.
"You misunderstand me," he said. "We are definitely prepared to carry out the Beijing agreement, step by step, but we won't completely and finally dismantle our nuclear weapons program until our relations with the United States are fully normalized. That will take some time, and until we reach the final target, we should find a way to coexist."
This exchange foreshadowed the North Korean test of a nuclear explosive device that has prompted demands for a naval blockade or military strikes against known North Korean nuclear facilities. But my conversations with six key North Korean leaders on a recent visit indicated that the test opens up new diplomatic opportunities and should not be viewed primarily as a military challenge.
A jump-start for talks?
Paradoxical as it may seem, Pyongyang staged the test as a last-ditch effort to jump-start a bilateral dialogue on the normalization of relations that the United States has so far spurned. Over and over, I was told that Pyongyang wants bilateral negotiations to set the stage for implementation of the denuclearization agreement it concluded in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005, with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
Washington focuses on Article One of the accord, in which North Korea agreed to "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." But what made the agreement acceptable to Pyongyang was the pledge in Article Two that the United States and North Korea would "respect each other's sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations."
In North Korean eyes, it was a flagrant violation when, four days after the agreement was signed, the United States in effect declared economic war on the Kim Jong Il regime. The Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions designed to cut off North Korean access to the international banking system, branding it a "criminal state" guilty of counterfeiting and money laundering.
The sanctions issue has given the initiative to hard-liners in Pyongyang, who can plausibly argue that the sanctions are the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the Bush administration to undercut the Beijing agreement, squeeze the Kim regime and eventually force its collapse.
To be sure, the United States should take action against any abuse of its currency. But the financial sanctions are not targeted solely against counterfeiting and any other illicit North Korean activity. They go much further by seeking to cut off all North Korean financial intercourse with the world. The United States has warned financial institutions everywhere, Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey said Aug. 23, "of the risks in holding any North Korean accounts."
Foreign businessmen and diplomats in Pyongyang told me of numerous cases in which legitimate imports of industrial equipment to make consumer goods have been blocked by the banking sanctions. This slows down the efforts of North Korean reformers to open up to the outside world and curtails economic growth. So far, the sanctions do not appear to be undermining the regime, but North Korean leaders can feel the noose tightening.
The Bush administration says that it is not pursuing a policy of "regime change," but the president did tell Bob Woodward that he would like to "topple" Kim Jong Il, according to Woodward's book "Bush at War." Recently, when a State Department official told Levey that the sanctions should distinguish between licit and illicit North Korean activity, Levey replied, "You know the president loves this stuff." Robert Joseph, John Bolton's successor as undersecretary of state for arms control, said at a recent State Department meeting that he hoped the sanctions would "put out all the lights in Pyongyang."
To advance U.S. security interests, the United States should agree to bilateral negotiations. It should press North Korea to suspend further nuclear and missile tests while negotiations on normalization proceed, freeze plutonium production and make a firm, timebound commitment to return to the six-party talks. In return, the administration should negotiate a compromise on the financial sanctions that would reopen North Korean access to the international banking system, offer large-scale energy cooperation and remove North Korea from the State Department's list of terrorist states, thus opening the way for multilateral aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, all of which North Korea is actively seeking to join.
Playing games with "regime change" has become much too dangerous and should now give way to a sustained diplomatic effort to roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons program while it is still in its early stages.
- Selig S. Harrison, a former Post bureau chief in Northeast Asia, is the director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and the author of "Korean Endgame."