Approach to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

von Pan Zhenqiang
Während das Ende des Kalten Krieges die Welt grundlegend verändert hat, hält die Konfrontation auf der koreanischen Halbinsel unverändert an. Von den nuklearen Rüstungsprogrammen Nordkoreas geht inzwischen ein Sicherheitsrisiko nicht nur für die Region Nordostasien, sondern für die gesamte internationale Politik aus. In dem vorliegenden Papier von Generalmajor Pan Zhenqiang (a.D.), Professor und stellvertretender Direktor am Shanghai Institut für Internationale Strategische Studien wird der Versuch unternommen, Vorschläge in Form eines umfassenden Ansatzes zur Lösung der Krise aufzuzeigen.KAS-Schriftenreihe China Nr. 22, Beijing, Englisch, 29 Seiten.


Approach to the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (1)

July 2003 witnesses the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the armistice agreement in the Korean War. The agreement ended the three-year long bloody military conflict in the Korean Peninsular, and helped maintain a precarious peace among the warring sides. It the meantime, the truce has also perpetuated the division of the Korean nation, leading to a heavily armed confrontation between the DPRK on one side and the U.S. with its alliances on the other over the past 50 years. The end of the Cold War has entirely changed the world and regional security landscapes. The rigid confrontation in the Korean Peninsula has, however, remained fundamentally unchanged. What has further compounded the situation is that the recent sudden reemergence of the issue of the North Korea’s nuclear development program, which has immediately heightened tension between the two major opponents-the DPRK and the United States. As neither side seems willing to back down from its main positions, the issue is now being turned into a crisis, which are threatening to unravel almost a decade of painfully crafted diplomatic effort designed to prevent full-scale nuclear weapons development on the peninsula; bring about long-term consequences for the world nonproliferation regime. Further, the crisis is now also generating greater uncertainties in the peninsula, and therefore jeopardize security and stability in the whole Northeast Asia region. Despite great efforts made by the international community to grapple with the mounting issue, no solution acceptable to the parties concerned seems to this day of writing within reach. The present paper attempts to analyze the background of the crisis, its implications and future prospect, and argues that a cooperative and comprehensive approach perhaps is the only way to resolve the issue, and to pave way for the future sustained peace and stability in Northeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula in particular.

A historical review of North Korea's nuclear issue

North Korea has had a nuclear program since the 1960s, with a small research reactor of 5 megawatts (5 MW) at Yongbyon capable of producing Plutonium. In the 1980s, the severe energy shortage in North Korea led to an agreement to import nuclear reactors and oil from the USSR, a condition being that North Korea signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which the DPRK accepted with great reluctance. After many years’ hesitance, Pyongyang signed the NPT in 1985. However, the cost of the reactors prevented North Korea final purchasing of them, and the USSR’s insistence on being paid in hard currency resulted in the cessation of the oil shipments. With the continuing decline of its economy, and with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the fast subsequent change of the security environment around North Korea in particular, Pyongyang was forced to start construction of two reactors, rated at respectively 50MW and 200MW, chiefly by relying on its own technology,. In 1992 the country signed a safeguard agreement with IAEA. Consequent inspections resulted in a rift between the DPRK and IAEA on the verification of North Korea’s nuclear sites. Refusal of the inspectors’ requested access to a waste site led to the previous crisis in 1993-1994.

The Clinton administration took the issue very seriously as it had cherished nonproliferation as the top priority on its national agenda with the Cold War being faded away. Although it appears that the US then went as far as making preparing for a military strike on the North Korean research reactor, a package deal based on the mutual compromise was eventually reached through direct negotiation, resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework. Under this, the two sides made a package deal, each undertaking different commitments. The major terms of this Agreed Framework are as follows:

Joint U.S.-North Korean Obligations:

•The United States and North Korea committed to move toward normalizing economic and political relations, including by reducing barriers to investment, opening liaison offices, and ultimately exchanging ambassadors.

•Both sides commit not to nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The United States must "provide formal assurances" not to threaten or use nuclear weapons against North Korea. Pyongyang is required to "consistently take steps" to implement the 1992 North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korean Obligations

Reactor Freeze and Dismantlement: The framework calls for North Korea to freeze operation of its 5-megawatt reactor and plutonium-reprocessing plant at Yongbyon and construction of a 50-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and a 200-megawatt plant at Taechon. These facilities are to be dismantled prior to the completion of the second light-water reactor.

Inspections: North Korea must come into "full compliance" with IAEA safeguards when a "significant portion of the light-water reactor project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components." Full compliance includes taking all steps deemed necessary by the IAEA to determine the extent to which North Korea diverted material for weapons use in the past, including giving inspectors access to all nuclear facilities in the country. The CIA estimates that Pyongyang has not accounted for one to two nuclear weapons worth of plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor.

Spent Fuel: The spent fuel from North Korea's 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon is to be put into containers as soon as possible (a process called "canning") and removed from the country when nuclear components for the first light-water reactor begin to arrive after North Korea has come into full compliance with IAEA safeguards.

NPT Membership: The Agreed Framework requires that North Korea remain a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

U.S. Obligations

Establish and Organize KEDO: This includes the securing of diplomatic and legal rights and guarantees necessary to implement the light-water reactor project.

Implement the Light-Water Reactor Project: The United States is to facilitate the construction of two 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear power reactors.

Provide Heavy-Fuel Oil Shipments: To compensate for the electricity-generating capacity that Pyongyang gave up by freezing its nuclear reactors, KEDO will supply North Korea with 500,000 metric tons of heavy-fuel oil annually until the light-water reactor project is completed.(2)

The Agreed Framework played a positive role in halting North Korea’s nuclear development program based on the existing material and facilities. As one estimate stated: “If you look at outcome of the Agreed Framework, you see that a North Korean nuclear weapons program based on plutonium was stopped. If we had not negotiated and had not otherwise stopped the program, it would have produced by now at least 100 nuclear weapons.”(3)

More importantly, it provided a good example that international disputes, particularly when involving international nonproliferation effort, could be solved, based on a cooperative formula, thus achieving a win-win result.

The agreed framework had thus generated additional benefits in political and strategic terms. In the subsequent years, North Korea showed considerable good faith in improving political relations with South Korea as well as western countries, including the United States. Pyongyang had also demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with its counterparts in curbing its nuclear and missile programs particularly when the U.S., South Korea and its allies agreed to take into consideration North Korea’s security concerns and to provide economic assistance. This trend was added additional dynamism when Kim Dae Jung became president in South Korea in 1997, and immediately pursued the sunshine policy towards North Korea. The two Koreas achieved a historical breakthrough in the decades-long-impasse in their relations as a result of the summit meeting of the two countries in 2000. Meanwhile, North Korea showed more unmistakable signs of initiating reforms at home and opening up to the outside world, albeit in a cautious manner. On the U.S. side, concerned over the missile development program of the North Korea, President Clinton sent his special envoy, Bill Perry-his former secretary of defense, to North Korea to talk on the issue, and in addition, to explore the way to define the U.S. relations with Pyongyang beyond the proliferation problem. Although sticking to the U.S traditional rule of “carrot and stick” tactics vis-à-vis small and weak nations, Perry came back with a report to Clinton, strongly suggesting “a new, comprehensive and integrated” strategy towards North Korea, more inclined to using carrots.(4) During his visit, North Korea offered a moratorium on its missile test program to send a clear signal for cooperation. Soon after, the Clinton administration eased the trade sanctions against the DPRK that had been in place since the Korean war.

By the last months of the Clinton administration, the two countries had actually come so close to each other that it promised even a ray of hope of a larger breakthrough in their bilateral relations. Unprecedented high level exchanges of visits took place with a lot of demonstration of good political will from both sides. In October 2000, Vice Marshal Jo Myung Rok, reportedly the second-in-command in North Korean, visited the White House. At the conclusion of his visit, both governments pledged that they would “fundamentally improve their bilateral relations.” Toward this end,

“the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other and continued the commitment of both governments… to build a new relationship free from past enmity…The two sides agreed that resolution of the missile issue would make an essential contribution to a fundamentally improved relationship between them and to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”(5)

The declared intent to end the hostility paved the way for a missile deal-another U.S. major security concern in the Korean Peninsula. In this respect, North Korea proved also to be conciliatory and cooperative. Later the same month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang, where she became the first American high ranking official to meet at length with Kim Jong Il. During their talk, it seems that Kim Jong Il took particular pains to outline a prospective agreement with the missile issue. Kim reportedly informed her that “North Korea would be prepared to negotiate an immediate freeze on long-range missile testing and development and to stop all exports of missiles and missile components, provided that the United States offered sufficient economic aid and other inducements in return, including arrangements to launch North Korean scientific research and communications satellites”(6) Evidently such a deal, if concluded, would be another important step in pushing further the bilateral relations in a right direction. North Korea issued an invitation to Clinton for a visit to Pyongyang for the pending deal. Unfortunately, constrained by domestic politics, Clinton declined the invitation in the last minute and lost a good opportunity of reshaping the security structure in the peninsula on a cooperative approach.

No doubt, underpinning all the above said positive trends, the Agreed Framework had become one important pillar in the US.-North Korean relations, On the other hand, owing to both technical and political reasons, it had flaws and was subject to various constraints at the very beginning. Produced as an expedient solution to an imminent nonproliferation problem rather than a sustainable building block for the long-term peace and security, the agreed framework was obviously too weak to play a sustained role in addressing the proliferation issue, let alone reducing suspicions and resolving fundamental differences between the U.S. and North Korea.

From a technical point of view, the Agreed Framework seems to focus entirely on North Korea’s existing plutonium material and facilities, and didn’t involve its new programs. This so-called incompleteness has become the focal point in the attack against the agreed framework by the hardliners in the U.S., who complained that this “loophole” had provided opportunity to the DPRK to make use of in starting its uranium enrichment program as the 1994 accord didn’t say anything about the new program.

The Framework Agreement was also vague about the process of verification, subject to different interpretations. This seems to be another bone of contention, which became one of the causes for both the US and DPRK to angrily accuse the other side for “breeching” its due obligations. For example, according to the Agreed Framework, the DPRK was obligated to be in “full compliance” with IAEA safeguards when a “significant portion of the LWR project is completed, but before the delivery of key nuclear components”. No date was specified for this compliance. These vague languages generated different interpretations and complaints for the violation of the agreement from both sides especially when the construction of the planned light water reactors were delayed.

Problems had been further compounded by an apparent underestimation of the engineering and financial difficulties in the building of the two light water reactors on the DEDO side. The target date of the first such a reactor was 2003, but it was soon found out to be impossible within reach. Professor Chung Chung-wook-former National Security Advisor of South Korea, who had been closely involved in the negotiation process for the Agreed Framework on behalf of the South Korean government in 1994 has recently stated:

“I sometimes wonder whether or not there was something that we could have done better….Certainly we could have done something else given the fact that North Korea wanted energy. Light water reactors would take 10 years or more before electricity could be generated. Perhaps a thermal or hydro power plant could have been much more effective. …We could have perhaps persuaded North Korea to accept another alternative which could have provided North Korea with a faster, more direct means of getting what they wanted and also allowing us to obtain what we were looking for, transparency of North Korea's nuclear program.”(7)

All these problems became sources of impatie nce, suspicions and accusations from both sides. But if they remained of technical nature, political constraints especially from the U.S. side seem more fatal in leading to the final collapse of the Agreed Framework and the resumption of all the long-held hostilities in the peninsula. At the very outset, the agreement was attacked by the neo-conservatives in the United States. The criticism was further reinforced when the Republicans gained control of the Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, thus greatly restraining the actions of the Clinton administration. At the same time, the project of building the light water reactors proceeded much more slowly than stipulated under the accord.

The Bush administration came into power in 2001, which at once terminated virtually all the ongoing positive developments in the Korean Peninsula under the pretext of the need to conduct a review on the U.S. policy towards North Korea. At the first six months, the Korean issue was virtually put on the shelf partly because there was evidently serious difference among the Bush’s own team, partly because hard-liners increasingly took the dominant position with regard to North Korean issue, who were only too anxious to get rid of the engagement policy by the Clinton administration. (8) Unlike its predecessor, who took North Korea as an interlocutor, the Bush administration appeared to view Pyongyang more as a dangerous threat to eliminate. The new administration also questioned the validity of its predecessor’s negotiating approach to North Korea, which was described as “appeasement”, and believed to hardly achieve the U.S. strategic objective of preventing Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear and long range missile capabilities. With such a mindset, The Bush administration announced on June 6, 2001 that it had completed its North Korea policy review, and would pursue “a comprehensive approach to Pyongyang, which was more accurately described as “a benign negligence policy".(9) Despite its pledge to continue support for the Agreed Framework and provision of food aid, Washington was in no hurry to resume where its predecessor had left off. The U.S-North Korean relations were on hold.

Then the 9.11 terrorist attack happened, which dramatically changed the threat perception and security strategy of the Bush administration. Contrary to the expectations of the international community that United States may become more inclined to strengthening international cooperation to address the security issues, the event seemed only to further augment the hardliners’ view in the Bush administration that in order to ensure security, the U.S. must rebuild the world on its terms, and chiefly by military means. In this newly defined context of the U.S. security strategy, North Korea was fast diminished in its importance as a counterpart for negotiation, but increased considerably as a larger threat to the U.S. core national interests. Despite the conciliatory manifestations offered by Pyongyang for the terrorist attack, the Bush administration formally labeled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address. In March 2002, it was revealed by the U.S. media that the administration would consider using nuclear weapons in a major Korean contingency as outlined in the 2001 nuclear Posture review. Numerous subsequent policy statements in Washington further called North Korea as one of the rogue states, and stressed that the United States would not feel bound by previous policy commitments and might resort even to preemptive strike or regime change if necessary, to protect security of itself and its allies.

North Korea was quick to grasp the substantial change of the U.S. position, and evidently took great offence by the U.S. deliberate slight on its international status and President Bush’s repeated attack on Kim Jong Il in person in particular. Pyongyang escalated its accusations against the Bush administration in kind, and pointed out that the U.S. was on the way of breaching almost all its obligations under the Agreed Framework. Under the circumstance, North Korea stressed that it neither would be bound by any commitment as defined in its agreements with United States. At the same time, remarks began to be heard that in the face of the U.S. belligerent policy, North Korea would have to make war preparation to protect its security. But what merits attention is that even then, Pyongyang seemed still to have left the door open for dialogue and negotiation with Washington. Meanwhile, Pyongyang shifted its diplomatic focus on South Korea, Japan and the European countries in the hope of strengthening its position vis-à-vis the United States, and winning economic assistance to its failing economy from these sources. The two Koreas resumed their ministerial-level talks to implement agreements reached in June 2000. Pyongyang succeeded in establishing diplomatic relations with a number of European countries. In September 2002, North Korea and Japan surprised the world by announcing a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to Pyongyang without Washington’s awareness in advance. The summit meeting between the North and Japan brought the normalization of the two countries’ relations on the prospective agenda with a commitment on the part of Japan to provide substantial economic assistance as a way of the compensation for its responsibility in bringing sufferings to the Korean people during the World War II.. Although the normalization process was interrupted by the abduction issue, the actions of South Korea and Japan respectively sent strong signals to Washington that the regional countries including the U.S. allies preferred engagement and a give-and take approach towards North Korea; and for that aim, they were even prepared to pursue their own unilateralism-to act alone without the blessing from Washington. This is really something never happening before, which must have exerted pressure on the Bush administration.

How the current nuclear crisis plays out?

It was against the above backdrop, that the Bush administration announced finally that it was ready to resume negotiation with North Korea, but in fact was poised for a new confrontation. No one anticipated that the negotiation, which actually took place on October 4, 2000, would immediately be turned into a nasty crisis. It was reported that when the talk started, the U.S. envoy-James Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State, proceeded to accuse Pyongyang for having pursued a covert highly enriched uranium (HEU) program, and stressed that the administration would never want further talks unless North Korea gives it up all, and with adequate verification. According to the Western media, the negotiators from the North seemed to be “stunned” by the U.S. super hard-line as they had originally even expected a possible breakthrough with the U.S. in the resumption of the talks. They reflected and discussed the issue for the whole ensuing night. The next day, it was reported that North Korea emerged with a changed attitude from the initial denial of such program to the acknowledgement of its existence. Further, North Korean negotiator Kan Sok ju-Deputy Foreign Minister, emotionally charged that it was the Bush administration that had been consistently violating the terms of the Agreed Framework and that in the face of its being nullified owing to the U.S. hostile policy, the North was entitled not only to have nuclear weapons, but even other weapons more powerful in order to protect itself. (10)

No one exactly knows just what had exactly happened in the subsequent weeks, North Korea issued official statements often hyperbolic and self-contradictory to each other in content. At one time Pyongyang seemed to acknowledge the secret HEU program, and even the possession of actual bombs already; at others, it seemed what it really wanted to say is that it was entitle to have them. One thing is clear, however, that is, the new confrontation has immediately set off a new round of action and reaction in such a dizzying manner, that has quickly unraveled the Agreed Framework and promised to reverse the situation back to that in the Cold War.. On November 14, the U.S. halted heavy fuel oil shipment to North Korea, which had been thought by the North the only obligation that Washington had so far faithfully fulfilled. In response, North Korea announced in December that it would immediately lift a freeze on a nuclear reactor that had been mothballed since the 1994 agreement. A few days later, Pyongyang removed all the monitoring devices of the IAEA at Yongbyon nuclear plant, and to ask its inspectors to leave the country. The new year of 2003 saw other alarming announcements from the North, including its immediate withdrawal from the NPT, as well as the nullifying of the self-restraints for the missile tests. In February, the Bush administration announced a plan of sending reinforcement troops in Northeast Asia. The DPRK responded by declaring that it would reactivate its nuclear facilities, and threatened that any sanctions, whether authorized by the UN Security Council or imposed by the U.S. with its allies, will be tantamount to an act of war against the DPRK . In April, North Korea officials declared that it had already possessed a nuclear arsenal, and had started the plutonium separation from its 8,000 spent fuel rods. (11)

Meanwhile, North Korea urged the Bush administration to come back to the negotiation table for a solution of the crisis. Pyongyang emphasized that since its nuclear program was entirely a response to the U.S. hostile policy, the issue can be solved only through the bilateral negotiation between the two countries. As a matter of fact, Pyongyang even put forward a suggestion for a package deal with Washington. In its October 25 statement from the Foreign Ministry, North Korea said:

“The DPRK, with greatest magnanimity, clarified that it was ready to seek a negotiated settlement of this issue on the following three conditions: firstly, if the U.S. recognizes the DPRK’s sovereignty; secondly, if it assures the DPRK of non-aggression; and thirdly, if the U.S. does not hinder the economic development of the DPRK. . . . The DPRK considers that it is a reasonable and realistic solution to the nuclear issue to conclude a non-aggression treaty between the DPRK and the U.S. . . . If the U.S. legally assures the DPRK of non-aggression, including the non-use of nuclear weapons against it by concluding such a treaty, the DPRK will be ready to clear the former of its security concerns.” (12)

This tit-for-tat-but-leaving-room-for-compromise attitude of the DPRK has at once put the Bush administration in dilemma. Like North Korea, Washington had seemed also “stunned” by Pyongyang’s intransigent position. According to some Western media report, The C.I.A. report had predicted that North Korea, if confronted with the evidence, would not risk an open break with the 1994 agreement and would do nothing to violate the nonproliferation treaty. So, it had perhaps not expected North Korea would go as far as openly admitting its nuclear program, and challenging Washington for its right to seek nuclear weapons for its national interests.

The Bush administration immediately found itself faced with three options it can pursue, none of which, however, it preferred:

The first is to seek resolution through negotiations. It could be just a replay of the 1993-94 negotiation for the Agreed Framework to remove the nuclear threat from the North. Through negotiations, Washington could confine itself only to the immediate objective, that is, inducing Pyongyang to return to the status quo ante (dismantling the HEU program, re-freezing Yongbyong, and abiding by the Agreed Framework and the NPT, etc,). Or it could seek to achieve a larger goal of preventing North Korea from acquiring additional nuclear weapons capability as well as elimination of the North’s long-rang missile programs and perhaps even the reduction of the conventional threat. The negotiations could also be designed to steer North Korea down the path of political and economic reform and eventual acceptance into the community of nations. This policy choice would of course require Washington to pay a cost by, for example, providing some security assurance and economic benefit to the North. Moreover, it also entails the recognition/acceptance of the legitimacy of Kim Jong Il’s regime. The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration want to pay none of them. They argued that 1) they had no trust in Pyongyang’s sincerity in the negotiation.; 2) they didn’t think the issue was only a bilateral problem between the U.S. and the DPRK; 3) They were afraid that to agree to talk might fall into the same mistake as done by the Clinton administration. It seems that they particularly wanted to avoid an impression that a new deal with North Korea might be taken as a sign of giving in to the nuclear blackmail by the DPRK, thus greatly eroding the U.S. creditability to the world.; 4) they found that concluding a non-aggression treaty with the DPRK would violate one of the established positions of the administration, that is, any international document with binding legal force would constrain its freedom of action in the future.

The second choice the Bush administration can take is confrontation. The U.S. could adopt a policy of pure coercion designed to further isolate North Korea, force it to abandon its nuclear program, or drive it into collapse. This can be done preferably by using non-military instruments (economic sanctions, international isolation, etc,) either in partnership with allies and friends, or alone if necessary. But if non-military confrontation proves to be unsuccessful, the U.S. would be ready to employ military means to prevent both a North Korean “strategic breakout” (a robust nuclear weapons capability) and the specter of North Korea supplying nuclear materials to terrorists groups and unfriendly states. This choice undoubtedly pleased the super hawks in Washington, but there seem also many pitfalls, that make the confrontation strategy highly risky and almost have no hope to succeed. Coercion measures can hardly be expected to work as most members of the international community, including the U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan might not be able to fully participate, let alone the almost assured opposition from China and Russia. As with regards to the military strikes against North Korea, it is obvious that the Bush administration is simply not in a position to contemplate such a major military action, while bogged down in Iraq with a major portion of its military assets. North Korea is not Iraq. Even if the U.S. can co nduct such operations, they will be bound to generate so many unintended consequences that could make even the arch neo-conservatives pause for that option.(13)

The third option is doing nothing at least for the moment. While not condoning or approving North Korea’s behavior, the U.S. could adopt a hands-off approach, refusing to engage the North unless and until it visibly and verifiably dismantles its HEU program and maintains the freeze at Yongbyon. This so-called choice of tolerance could also rely on other major players to deal with the North, signaling calmness and patience and avoiding explicit military threats while holding out the prospect of directly engaging the North in the future in return for North Korea’s honoring its past commitments by dismantling its plutonium and uranium programs. One argument underpinning this approach is the belief that North Korea is in such desperate need of outside assistance that, unlike in 1994, it is vulnerable to U.S. leverage. So, why not wait until the North first blinks. This view further argues that even if this approach does not produce the desired result, the U.S. could live with North Korea’s acquisition of a few more nuclear weapons on the assumption that there is no significant strategic difference between a presumed arsenal of one or two nuclear weapons and an arsenal of six or seven; in either case the U.S. could deter and contain North Korea. However, others strongly disagree. As William Perry -one of the most vehement opponents of this approach stressed, nothing could be more dangerous than this thought. Perry holds that North Korea’s loose nukes are a larger disaster than Iraq’s alleged chemical and biological arms. “This disaster touches the highest security interests of the U.S. and the world as we enter the 21st century. Delay is not an option." (14) So, according to the critics of the benign negligence theory, although this option offers some time for Washington to avoid a difficult policy choice, to let the situation drift without the direct engagement of the U.S. does not guarantee the yielding of North Korea on Washington’s terms in the end. Rather, a more predictable possibility could be that North Korea would continue its escalation strategy until it finds itself obliged in desperation to turn its hyperbolic pledges into reality-to manufacture its nuclear weapons. As for the consequence of the North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capability, the situation can be far more stark than had been imagined. A chain action and reaction seem almost certain to follow. Japan, or South Korea would have good reasons to seek the nuclear option. The nonproliferation regime would totally collapse in the Northeast Asia region. In addition, to the U.S. there is also a creditability problem: if it were not able to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a “rogue country”, what moral arguments the Bush administration could have to persuade other unfriendly country not to follow the suit? Ultimately, it is most probably, therefore, that the choice of tolerance for Washington for the moment may well lead to the intolerance of the U.S. in the end. The only resultant option then would be resorting to the war.

Evidently, owing to the serious divisions within its own team, and also, to the preoccupation with handling the Iraq issue-the top security priority on its agenda, the Bush administration seemed hesitant among the advantages and disadvantages of the above three options, and often give the world an impression that it would rather wait and not rush to any quick decision, while keeping all the options open. On the other hand, measures taken at the initial stage of the crisis still largely reflected the inclinations of the neo-conservatives in Washington-not to “reward” anything in the form of a compromise to Pyongyang. At the same time, the Bush administration is trying all it could to exert maximum possible pressure on the North to achieve a solution on the American terms. All the major steps taken seemed therefore designed for this purpose. 1) refusal of negotiation. It insists that there would be no negotiation unless the North agrees to a verifiable cancellation of all its nuclear program. 2) Internationalizing the issue. It wants the UN Security Council to get involved, to have other major powers involved, and to have the IAEA involved. Thus, it remains one of the U.S. focuses to drag North Korea into a sort of multilateral forum. In this connection, interestingly the U.S. seems particularly to hope that China should play a role in mounting pressures on the North for its compromise. 3) Planning punitive actions. For this purpose, the Bush administration seems now intent on building an international coalition to impose sanctions against the North and even start to conduct the interdiction of North Korean ships in the hope of slowing the so-called Pyongyang’s export of illicit arms, currency, missiles, and drugs-an act that North Korea called as an attempt to “stifle” its economy. (15) 4) Preparing for a military option. Although Washington has reaffirmed its wish to seek a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis, and stressed that it had no plan to attack the North, the Bush administration has also made clear that all the options are open, which clearly means that it does not rule out a military attack as a way of solution. This ominous prospect is deemed possible not only because it has been theoretically approved by the American new doctrine of preemption, experimented in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but also because Washington has all the time been intensifying the actual war preparations for any possible contingencies in the peninsula. Reinforcements are being continuously sent to the troops in Northeast Asia. Restructuring the military deployment in South Korea is being implemented, which is believed to give the American troops greater flexibility in the military strikes against the North. (16) There are even talks about the possibility of using small nuclear bombs in order to eliminate the North’s underground powerful conventional arms. (17)

North Korea seems also poised for a military confrontation at least in rhetoric. It threatened "strong and merciless" retaliation if the US and its allies imposed sanctions or a blockade. Pyongyang has also made clear that it will take such U.S. moves as a complete breach of the Armistice Agreement (AA) by the US side," thus freeing itself from its obligations under the armistice accord. The DPRK would not hesitate to inflict "strong and merciless retaliatory measures...," (18) The nuclear crisis threatens to become a long-standing stand-off between the U.S. and North Korea. The danger is that with each resorting to escalating tactics, a momentum was being built up to roll the situation out of control of all the major players, leading to an eventual military conflict or even a war.

Against this backdrop, China came to play a significant role in arresting the tension, and bridging the two sides for a solution acceptable to both. Thanks to its unswerving and tactful effort, China succeeded in getting both Washington and Pyongyang to agree to trilateral talks (plus Beijing) to be taken place in Beijing on April 23-25, 2003. The meeting ended without any substantive results. The Bush administration’s representatives even refused to have direct contact with the North Korean delegates during the talks. But the meetings are still of great significance in the fact that both sides had a better understanding of each other’s positions and did agree to continue to explore the way for a peaceful settlement. During the talks, it was reported that North Korea was once again using a time-worn brinkmanship tactic of raising the tension and stakes in its negotiations with Washington at the same time it made an offer of concession. North Korea was said to tell the U.S. delegation that it had possessed nuclear weapons (the first time that Pyongyang has made such an admission). North Korea also told the U.S. delegation that it has completed reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel from the five-megawatt reactor frozen under the Agreed Framework. Meanwhile, North Korea offered a bold “package deal” if Washington had a good faith to cooperate. No details have been revealed as to the exact content of this proposal. But to piece together what were said by the officials from both the capitals later on, it seems that Pyongyang had tabled a very comprehensive proposal for the solution of the crisis. The proposal seemed to contain the following:

For the U.S., it must pledge to: 1) make a non-aggression pledge; 2) establish diplomatic relations; 3) assure the realization of North Korean-Japanese and inter-Korean economic cooperation; 4) compensate the North for the loss of energy caused by the delay of the light-water-reactor (LWR) project; 5) complete that project. In return, the North would pledge to: 1)not make nuclear weapons; 2)accept verification mechanisms (inspections); 3) eventually dismantle its nuclear sites; 4) maintain the missile moratorium, and 5) end all exports of missile technology and/or parts. (19)

As the American delegation had no authority to negotiate with its counterparts in the Beijing meetings, the North Korean proposal had no chance to be discussed. But what is important is that the Beijing initiative has set a stage for further talks both in form and content.

Soon after the Beijing trilateral talks, both Washington and Pyongyang seemed to relax each of their positions. A U.S. congressional delegation led by Rep. Curt Weldon (Rep)- Vice-Chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, visited Pyongyang from June 1-3, 2003. Upon returning from the trip, Weldon unveiled details of a 10-point plan he discussed with Pyongyang leaders to prod them to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Curt Weldon recalled that he had taken it up with DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan and received an encouraging response. The two-stage plan would initially involve: a one-year non-aggression pact signed by Washington and Pyongyang. The DPRK's official renouncement of its nuclear weapons and research programs, with full and unfettered inspection of its nuclear facilities by a US designee. The DPRK's rejoining the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. A Korean Economic Development and Security Initiative funded by the US, DPRK, ROK, Japan, China, Russia and European partners to the tune of three to five billion dollars per year over the next 10 years. Washington's official recognition of DPRK and the opening of a mission in Pyongyang. After the one-year period or the satisfactory completion of the first five steps, a second stage would involve, among other things, making the non-aggression pact permanent and DPRK's ratification of the Missile Technology Control Regime. (20) Although Weldon’s effort didn’t represent the U.S. official position, it nevertheless did represent some new lines of thinking were in offing in Washington. By the end of July, the Western media reported that “the US is preparing a proposal to address North Korea's "security concerns" but will not convey it to the communist state unless five-way talks (a preferred position of the Bush administration) are held on the DPRK's nuclear ambitions. (21)

At the same time, Pyongyang further softened its adamant position against multilateral talks. Attending the 23-member ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh in June, DPRK Ambassador-at-large Ho Jong also said “his country wants to have bilateral talks with US to fathom their political agenda, adding that DPRK is not necessarily opposing a multilateral forum over its nuclear development. (22) Then it was reported that North Korea would not be opposed to including South Korea into the following-on trilateral talks in the future. In July, with the facilitating effort by China, North Korea finally agreed to a full multilateral talks on the nuclear issue. On August 1, Pyongyang issued a statement, proposing “to start the six-party (in stead of 5-party, to add Russia) talks and holding the bilateral talks within their framework to discuss the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the US”. (23) North Korean’s new position quickly received positive response from all the other five countries. A tentative date has been set for the talks to start on August 27. A dim light seems emerging at the far end of the tunnel although there would be a long way to go for all the parties concerned out of the crisis.

Positions of other major players in the nuclear crisis

The nuclear crisis is no doubt a nonproliferation issue. But it has gone far beyond the issue as per se. Bedded in deep-rooted suspicion and hostility out of the accumulation of 50-year long confrontation between the DPRK and the United States, the issue has become very complicated, involving not only the core interests of the United States and the DPRK, but also the prospect of world and regional nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the future security arrangements in Northeast Asia. Thus, while it makes sense to stress that the nuclear crisis is basically an issue between North Korea and the United States, it is also justified to say that the issue has an international aspect as many other nations’ core interests are also at stake. Any solution to the nuclear crisis, therefore, will have to be dependent to a certain extent on the efforts of these nations as well.


As one of the closest neighbors of North Korea, China has tremendous geo-strategic stake in seeing a stable and friendly relation with the DPRK and maintaining peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. For that purpose, over 50 years ago, China was reluctantly drawn into the Korean War and succeeded in thwarting the American advance in the peninsula and securing a precarious peace in the peninsula till today but only with a heavy price. Over 148,000 Chinese volunteers fighting in the war lost their lives; more than 200,000 were wounded. Since then, China has consistently been a great supporter to the maintenance of peace and stability in the peninsula.

When the Cold War was over, the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula has become even more prominent in political as well as economic term as security in the whole Northeast Asia region hinged to a great extent on peace and stability in the peninsula. Thanks to its policy of omni-directional peaceful coexistence, China has managed to improve and maintain good relations with almost all the nations in the region. Continuance of the propitious situation based on regional cooperation has become one of the essential components in China’s efforts to build a sustained and peaceful international environment so that it could concentrate on its domestic development.

The nuclear crisis in North Korea, if mishandled, threatens to reverse the situation completely, and pose grave challenges that will seriously complicate China’s security calculations in the future. First of all, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea, in China’s perspective, will have serious fallout in the region. Japan or South Korea would almost be certain to follow the suit, thereby leading to a proliferation process that will turn Northeast Asia into a chaotic ground for nuclear arms race, and even a nuclear exchange. Second, North Korea going nuclear-a fact Washington might well find unacceptable, will be bound to draw drastic response from the U.S. and its allies. The resultant confrontation, military conflict or war will greatly affect or even change the security landscape in Northeast Asia, generating more instabilities in the region. Third, if North Korea’s determined to develop nuclear weapons, Pyongyang could do so only at the expense of its economic development, as it could no longer expect any meaningful economic assistance from the outside world, in addition to bearing the brunt of sanctions and even embargo by the U.S. led coalitions. The economy already in bad shape could become worse, threatening to generate political or social crisis, which may inevitably lead to thousands of North Korean refugees fleeing across the 1,400-kilometer border into China. Last but not least, the nuclear crisis could also put China in a dilemma in its handling relations with all the major players involved, none of which China wishes to be on bad terms. If the situation deteriorates, Beijing, for example, would find it increasingly difficult to keep a balance in its relations with the United States and North Korea as well as with North and South Koreas. Thus, Beijing must be keenly aware that the nuclear crisis puts both its international security and domestic stability at risks.

It is against the above said background, China has been consistently reaffirming its positions on the issue, which can be summarized as: 1) peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula must be preserved; 2) the peninsula must remain nuclear-free; 3) the dispute must be resolved through diplomatic and political methods. These positions form the core of Chinese approach to the resolution of the nuclear issue. (24)

China’s positions have won broad echoes from the international community as they indeed reflect the common wishes of world nations to see a peaceful settlement of the crisis. On the other hand, China also enjoys an advantageous position in that it maintains good relations with and subsequently has important influence on all the nations involved in the region. Naturally, with the encouragement of the international community, China has been doing all it can, to help bring the nuclear crisis into a peaceful resolution. In light of its above said basic principles, China called all the parties involved not to act in a way that will escalate the tension and further complicate the situation. China also urged the DPRK and the United States to conduct dialogue as it believed any solutions would have to be based on the contact and negotiations between the various players. As for the forms of this contact and negotiations, China remains flexible, stressing it will support dialogue in whatever forms as long as they are conducive to the solution of the issue. Given the fact that the DPRK and the U.S. were rigidly locked in their difference as to whether there should be bilateral talks (this is what North Korea strongly asked) or multilateral talks (this is what the U.S. insisted on) as the best venue for the dialogue, China succeeded in setting a multilateral stage for the convenience of the two parties’ actual direct contact, so as skillfully solve the dilemma. Thus, there were the trilateral talks in April and the scheduled six-party talks in August. During the process, China has taken great care to act as an honest and impartial mediator, encouraging the exploration of a solution through international cooperation, based on mutual respect and benefit, equality and mutual compromise. China is therefore strongly against any coercive measures like sanctions or even military pressures on any party. Finally, while playing a proactive and bridging role, China has deliberately kept itself in low profile, believing that international disputes could best be solved through quiet diplomacy.

The world opinion has given great credit to China’s role in the solution of the nuclear crisis in North Korea. But there are still a few uncertainties from both Washington and Pyongyang that might jeopardize China’s efforts in the future. The Bush administration has been so far pushing China to play a more significant role in the crisis on the ground that China shares the same objective with the U.S. of a nuclear free Korean Peninsula, and that no other countries than China can have more impact on North Korea’s policy. That may be true. But it should also be noticed that China does not necessarily agree with the Bush administration on anything about the crisis. If the Bush administration, for example, wishes to use China only for the sake of exercising pressure on North Korea, and bringing about the eventual regime change , instead of seeking a solution acceptable to all parties, the cooperation between China and the U.S. cannot be sustained. On the other hand, if North Korea is obstinately intent on acquiring nuclear weapons regardless of whatever cost, China’s efforts for the peaceful solution will also be bound to fall apart. In short, China’s positive effort cannot be the substitute of the two countries sincere wish to have a peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis, aimed at peace and stability in the peninsula and free of nuclear weapons. Only through the honest cooperation with the U.S. and the DPRK, can China’s effort be successful.

South Korea

South Korea is also one of the most directly involved countries in the nuclear crisis, but with great mixed feelings. As an ally to the United States, Seoul has no doubt a commitment to support the U.S. move. Further, like the United States, Seoul is evidently panicked over the prospect of North Korea going nuclear, which would be totally unacceptable to its security as well as to the regional stability in Northeast Asia. As one South Korean specialist put it:

“There have been claims that South Koreans are willing to tolerate a nuclear North Korea for fear of its implosion and an escalation of conflict on the Korean peninsula. The accusation is dead wrong. Not only does a nuclear North Korea pose formidable threat to the South, but it would also fundamentally alter the inter-Korean military balance. A subsequent nuclear arms race between the two Koreas bears nightmarish implications for regional security by precipitating a nuclear domino effect in the region. (25)

On the other hand, although the two allies pursue the same goal of a non-nuclear North Korea, there has been an unmistakable major divergence in their strategies. The South Koreans want neither a nuclear North Korea nor war on the Korean peninsula. Seoul was therefore extremely concerned about the implications of the U.S. confrontational approach to the issue. It was particularly uneasy about the U.S. threatening the use of military force or adopting a strategy of malign neglect based on isolation, containment and regime change against North Korea. The reasons for South Korea’s concerns are easy to understand. Given the geographical proximity to North Korea, any military option would pose a tremendous risk to South Korea, including the anticipated massive collateral damage. Secondly, South Korea’s political landscape has also radically changed. Since Kim Dao Jung started his “sunshine policy” towards North Korea, the public mood in South Korea has increasingly opted for rapprochement with the North and resented the American unjustified hostile policy towards Pyongyang. The offending acts like beating and murdering the innocent Korean citizens or raping the Korean girls that were often perpetrated by the American GIs living at military bases in South Korea further compound the situation. As a result, there has been a rising anti-American sentiment in South Korea, which explains the election to the Presidency of Roh Moo-hyun- a loyal disciple to Kim Dao Jung, by the end of 2002 despite serious setbacks that Kim’s “sunshine policy” and other economic measures had experienced. When he was elected, President Roh pledged to continue to work for the peace building on the Korean peninsula through engagement with the North. He virtually has a mandate for peace. That position made Washington very unhappy, and strained the bilateral alliance.

But of course, South Korea cannot afford to do without the United States support. Thus, President Roh has recently taken steps to mend the alliance in jeopardy. But the recent development of the situation has also demonstrated that Seoul’s basic position can hardly change, and its support to the U.S. confrontational approach is greatly conditioned. Seoul will continue to persuade the Bush administration to resort to an engagement policy and strive for a peaceful solution of the crisis, and prevent any drastic confrontational measures.

The importance of South Korea in the solution of the nuclear crisis cannot be overestimated. One cannot imagine that the U.S. could contemplate any military actions against the DPRK without the support of South Korea. Thus, it can be expected that the position of South Korea will continue to be a sobering influence to the evolution of the policy of the Bush administration.


Japan is ambivalent towards the nuclear crisis in North Korea. As a very loyal ally to the United States, Tokyo has demonstrated so far that it has followed the U.S. lines quite faithfully, and would be expected to eventually do whatever the Bush administration wishes it to do even if it has its own reservations.

There are a number of incentives for Japan to seek an active role in closer cooperation with the United States in the solution of the crisis in the future. First, Japan seems genuinely to believe that the existence of North Korea itself is a major threat to its own security, let alone Pyongyang’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Thus, there is genuine overlapping of interests on the nuclear issue with the United States. Second, Japan wishes apparently to take the opportunity to expand its role in the security arrangement in Northeast Asia (at least not to be left out), a motivation that explains why Tokyo has been anxious to get a seat in the multilateral talks for the solution of the crisis. Thirdly, at least the very influential rightist force in Japan has also been anxious to take the opportunity to push the country to be a more “normal” one, which means, among other things, the expansion of Japan’s military power and even the use of this military force in any event that affects its core security interests. (26)

But of course Japan has also found some constraining factors in its policy calculation. At any rate, the Korean Peninsula is too close a place for Japan to dismiss any negative implications that a major military conflict or war in the peninsula will have. Since North Korea is quipped with formidable conventional strength including its medium ranged missiles, let alone the alleged nuclear bombs, a future war in the peninsula will not be like the one in early 1950s when Japan benefited from the war without any worries to be directly involved in it. Japan may also find very uncertain the situation even if the Bush administration succeeds in causing the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s regime by whatever coercive means. Whether the post-Kim Korea would be more pro-American or pro-Japanese is a big question. If the Iraq war can be any historical guide, the consequence of the American actions against North Korea might well be the contrary to what is expected despite a military victory: a North with a new unpredictable leadership, or a hastily unified Korea, indignant at all the sufferings brought by the Americans-led war and with the rising anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiments. This situation can be no good news to Japan. Finally, Japan has a history issue (including both the history of the Second World War as well as of the abduction of Japanese by Pyongyang in 1970s) to be settled with North Korea, which has always been sensitive and emotional both at home and abroad.

Thus, Japan is acting along with the U.S. to exert the maximum possible pressure on the DPRK for the elimination of its nuclear and missile programs. As a bottom line, however, it can be argued that it may prefer a peaceful settlement and would be trying to persuade the Bush administration to have a “soft landing” towards Kim Jong Il’s regime. At the same time, Japan will not give up its own objective to achieve normalization of its relations with North Korea. With its economic strength, Japan has been actually a candidate with whom North Korea hopes to strengthen further collaboration in order to beef up its economy. Thus, in the security equation in Northeast Asia in the future, Japan expects to be able to play a more important role. The prerequisite, however, is that Tokyo must win minimum trust from the North.


Russia has shown enormous interest in playing a proactive and constructive role in the international effort for the peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis in North Korea. In addition to the geographical proximity to the Korean Peninsula, Russia has historically close ties with North Korea. Particularly in the field of security, Russia thinks that it is a major player in the region, and is entitled to have an important say in the solution of the issue. As a senior Russian diplomat stressed: “the escalating tension around DPRK's nuclear problem is a very serious problem, which poses a serious threat to Russia…. All this is happening in the immediate vicinity of our borders and the consequences of the possible aggravation of the situation and escalation of tension could be very negative." The diplomat went on to point out that there is a hypothetical possibility of a nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula. "The consequences of a nuclear blast, even if it goes off on DPRK's territory, could be detrimental for both the South and the North and, of course, for neighboring countries, including Russia." (27)

As a matter of fact, Russia deserves a constructive role in the nuclear crisis as it h as great potential to contribute to the security arrangement in Northeast Asia in the future. Interestingly, North Korea seems to have a special interest in Russia’s role. Pyongyang thus insisted on having Russia into the six-party talks. One explanation for this interest is that North Korea must feel uneasy about the growing common interest as demonstrated in the cooperation between China and the United States in a nuclear free peninsula, thus in Pyongyang’s perspective, to drag Russia in may be able to offset the perceived disadvantage of North Korea in the multilateral talks “by playing Moscow and Beijing against one another. (28)

Whether Russia will firmly stand behind North Korea in the future talks remains to be seen. But from all signs, Russia has actually maintained a very similar position to that of China towards the nuclear crisis. During a recent visit by Chinese President Hu Jingtao to Russia in May, a joint declaration was issued after a summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin. In that declaration, the two leaders have voiced their opposition to resorting to pressure or military means in solving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula; stressed that the key to resolving the problem lies in the political will of the concerned parties, and that the crisis should be solved by political and diplomatic means. Both the Chinese and Russian sides agree to guarantee the nuclear-free status of the Korean Peninsula, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the security of North Korea, and to create favorable conditions for North Korea's economic development. (29) On August 11, 2003, the two countries again held Vice-Foreign Minister-level contact to coordinate their position on the upcoming six-party talks. A broad consensus seemed to have been established. Both agreed that the six-party talks in Beijing would be another important step forward in the process to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue of the DPRK through dialogue. Both sides hoped the six parties would strengthen dialogue and mutual understanding, so as to reduce differences and make concerted efforts to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. (30)

In light of these developments, it can be expected that Russia could be an important proactive partner for China to lead the solution in a right direction.

European countries/European Union (EU)

Despite and maybe because of the fact that European countries are far from North Korea geographically, they are perceived to be welcome players by Pyongyang and are expected to play a constructive role in the future. For example, at the very beginning of the crisis, Pyongyang has indicated willingness for the UK to intercede with the US, presumably seeing the close interaction between Blair and Bush in the Iraq situation as a potential route to the US administration. Thus, in the perspective of North Korea, the European countries, particularly the European Union (EU) can perhaps be seen as giving more balance than can the US. North Korea has therefore a natural wish that since the EU has had an influence on the US assessment of the situation and it could continue to act positively on the US. There are also some indications that the EU may be welcomed by North Korea as a messenger to the US. Another field that EU is expected to contribute is the economic assistance. EU is currently involved in a number of North Korean initiatives, including technical assistance and trade concessions, although recent events have forced the EU to partly pull back. EU humanitarian aid is more than welcomed. Economic aid could be seen as positive in encouraging internal shifts in the regime rather than as regime supporting. Thus, although EU or any individual European countries may not be able to be directly involved in the six-party talks, they could be very useful supporters in any solution of the crisis in the future, particularly in the fields like conducting monitoring and verification activities, and providing humanitarian assistance.

Prospect of the nuclear crisis

The nuclear crisis in North Korea is at a crossroads. As tension remains, and neither the U.S. and the DPRK has substantively changed its basic positions, the crisis still could generate great uncertainties in the future. On the other hand, the good news is that both the U.S. and North Korea as well as the international community seem all aware that the consequences of a confrontation or a war are simply too unpredictable and too great to be in anybody’s interests. It is perhaps owing to this understanding and particularly thanks to the active efforts by members of the international community, and China in particular, both the Bush administration and Pyongyang seem for the first time showing some real flexibilities in agreeing to meet and talk. The question is whether the six-party talks will produce a solution acceptable to all the nations involved?

The answer is that it is plausible but far from certain. The reason for not being too pessimistic is that on examining carefully the situation, despite the hair-triggering danger for a confrontation, one might define a number of important elements which will hopefully provide incentives for the two major players-the U.S. and the DPRK, to achieve a peaceful resolution in the end. 1) Neither side really wishes to have a war in the peninsula. For the U.S., as noted above, the unpredictability in the military option serves as a powerful deterrence for its military actions. In addition, at least in the foreseeable future, it is greatly questionable if the Bush administration has the ability to launch a surgical strike against North Korea even if it intends to. 2) As a result of the trilateral meeting in Beijing, a format seemed to be emerging, which may tactfully meet the seemingly un-compromised requirements of both sides, and set a useful stage for the bilateral talk (which is the main position of the North) in a multilateral context (which is the main position of the U.S.). 3) Most members of the international community have expressed clear wishes to see a peaceful resolution, and not to support the U.S. rigid and confrontational approach. Even the U.S allies seem to keep a deliberate distance from the Bush Administration on the issue. What deserves particular notice is the attitude of South Korea. Unlike its more hawkish position than even that of the U.S. in 1994 nuclear crisis, it is perhaps safe to say that South Korea today has its security concerns and perceived interests more in line with China rather than with the United States.

Put together, all the above said developments perhaps suggest that a peaceful and diplomatic resolution is not only desirable but also feasible, based on a cooperative approach. The key to the success lies in the overcoming the greatest obstacle ahead, namely, the deep-rooted suspicions behind huge differences in their positions with regard to the crisis among the various players, the United States and North Korea in particular. In order to reduce this suspicion and build confidence and trust necessary for a give and take approach, the following are perhaps in order:

1) Clarifying the situation. Despite voluminous reports in the Western media and research institutions, and the U.S CIA declassified assessments, there seem still many ambiguities, clouding the nuclear crisis in North Korea, which could be the catalyst for unnecessary misunderstanding and resultant ill-defined responses.

The first of these is the real status of North Korea’s nuclear capability. North Korea is reportedly to have admitted that it had already a few bombs. However, many in the defense community have serious doubts on the real situation. As for the nuclear material, it seems clear that North Korea had been in a position to produce enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons before the agreed framework in 1994, but it has been extremely unlikely that it has maintained or even expanded such a capability since the accord. One U.S. principle negotiator for the 1994 agreement believed that “if you asked in 1994 how close were they to separating the plutonium in the spent fuel as compared to now, I would say they were closer than they are now.”(31) The Uranium enrichment story has even more uncertainties. As disclosed in the Western media, it seems that the U.S. began to be aware of the North’s alleged clandestine enrichment program in 1998. The most important evidence for this is the discovery of Pyongyang supposedly importing from Pakistan a great quantity of centrifuges which are said to be critical for the enrichment of uranium. (32) What is surprising though is the fact that neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration raised the issue to North Korea till the October flare-up in 2002. One arguable reason, therefore, is that Washington must have believed that it was not a big threat. Others suggest that the Bush administration had been too much preoccupied with the pending Iraq war that it had simply no energy nor time to attend the Korea issue. For whatever reasons, the Bush administration has so far only raised the issue as James Kelly did, it has not produced any evidence. One has therefore little knowledge about the purpose, nature and the scope of North Korea’s uranium program, and in what timeframe it is being implemented, if it does have such a program. (33) With regard to the linkage of Pakistani trade with North Korea, Islamabad has vehemently denied it, and it seems the U.S. accepted the denial of Pakistan, and has never raised the Pakistani involvement anymore. Given the pragmatism and inaccuracy of the U.S. intelligence as demonstrated in the Iraq war, together with the lack of transparency in North Korea, it is still not certain if North Korea’s nuclear capability is not somewhat exaggerated.

The second issue is about the intention of North Korea. Again, views on the objective of Pyongyang with regard to its nuclear program are divided. But basically, there are two opposing schools of thoughts. One believes that faced with the growing unfavorable international environment, particularly with the U.S. increasing strategic and military pressures, the North must have put its “regime survival” as the top priority, and if it has learned anything from the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq war, Pyongyang may have believed that only nuclear weapons may perhaps be able to deter the U.S. seemingly inevitable attack against it in the future. Thus, according to this view, to go nuclear is a determined objective of North Korea for all its manifestations of willing to trade the program for security or economic benefits. The other view, however, seems less pessimistic, arguing that despite all the belligerent rhetoric, North Korea is being in the process of change, wishing to establish normal and good relations with South Korea and Western countries, the United States in particular, in the hope of reducing tension in the peninsula as well as winning economic assistance from these countries. (34) One may therefore discern a pattern of North Korea’s behavior-a tit-for-tat cooperation. In other word, it is willing to cooperate when the other side shows the same desire; but will not hesitate to respond in kind or even like to push the issue to the brink of a crisis or conflict, if being slighted or humiliated. But its purpose is defensive rather than offensive, seeking (or forcing) as much a satisfactory resolution as confrontation. As one American analyst put it: “ Pyongyang wants to cut a deal with Washington. It wants to end its lifelong enmity with the Untied States and has demonstrated its readiness to give up its nuclear, missile and other arms programs in return.”(35)

But of course these two scenarios proposed by the two different schools of thoughts are not necessarily exclusive to each other. The greatest probability is that Pyongyang is resorting to a brinkmanship strategy to force a reconciliation with the West, including the United States. But if it fails to reach its objective, receiving nothing or only pressures from those it aims to be partners with, then all its hyperbolic threat could become a self-fulfilled prophecy in a drifting situation.

Of equal importance is the issue of the intention of the Bush administration, which seems also shrouded in mystery. A number of critical questions remain unanswered. For instance, has the administration real evidence of the North Korea’s clandestine program as it has claimed, and this time Washington will not repeat its mistake like that in intelligence in the Iraqi case? Why didn’t the Clinton and Bush administrations challenge North Korea for its HEU program when they had the knowledge reportedly starting in 1998? What is the real purpose of the Bush administration in the nuclear crisis? Nonproliferation? Regime change? Something else? Or all of them? As people are increasingly aware of the ambiguity as, again, in the Iraq war about the U.S. motivations, it is legitimate to ask the same question of the real and eventual motivations of the administration in the Korean crisis. Finally, if North Korea does not offer compromise as expected, will the U.S. eventually elects to resort greater confrontation measures, or even launch a preemptive strike? As many believed that the Bush administration has as much, if not more, responsibility as North Korea for the unfolding of the current crisis, and indeed it is now chiefly owing to the U.S. refusal of a resolution through peaceful and diplomatic means, the situation is the impasse. The ball seems in the U.S. court.

The problem seems to be further compounded by the inability of the Bush administration to demonstrate a consistent and coherent policy towards North Korea. Too often, people are perplexed by the mixed signals from different quarters at Washington. The latest example is when President George W. Bush and Secretary Colin Powell expressed their appreciation of North Korea’s decision to support multilateral talks for the solution of the crisis, almost at the same time, Under Secretary John Bolton-one of the arch neo-conservatives in the ministration viciously slammed DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il for all his evil-doing, vowing that the Bush administration would never yield to his “blackmail”. He of course didn’t forget to give a dark warning by threatening: “The international community's tolerance for actions that defy global norms is fast shrinking. There is growing political will to take concrete steps to prevent dictators such as Kim Jong Il from profiting in ill-gotten gains. We are moving to translate this political will into action." (36) When asked at a press conference what effect his attacks were likely to have on Pyongyang while delicate diplomatic negotiations were underway, Bolton said it was necessary to speak out. "I think it is important to tell the truth and I think that being able to state clearly the concerns we have about the regime in North Korea is important internationally in explaining why we are concerned both about its own support for terrorism and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," he said. (37) Clearly, Bolton’s remarks seemed addressed as much to his colleagues at Washington who happen to hold different views with his as to the North Koreans.

Given this situation, it seems that lack of knowledge and the division of views make all the debates about the nuclear crisis as if groping in dark. But one cannot imagine that a viable solution is possible if based on inaccurate or even manipulated information. Wrong information invites misinterpretation of other side’s intention as well as capabilities, often leading to miscalculation and over-response, which will then easily turn a solvable problem into a crisis with unintended consequences. The North Korea’s nuclear case may easily fall this pitfall.

2) A “roadmap” for the resolution. It is clear that the nuclear crisis is such a complex issue that one cannot expect to have a simple panacea for all the disputes involved at one stroke. There is a need for a roadmap, which should be carefully crafted to take into consideration the interests of all the parties involved; to combine the solutions of short-term concerns and long-term security needs; and to be operational in a step by step way.

This roadmap should first of all have an immediate focus on curbing the fast deteriorating tension in the peninsula. The best way to this end is perhaps each side should refrain from acting in whatever way to aggravate the tension, and come back to the pro quo ante before the 2002 crisis as the first step. Whether the 1994 agreed framework should continue is something the involved parties could discuss about. But clearly any new agreement should use the previous accord as a blueprint, and have the improvement so as to re-ensure the obligation of North Korea to remain non-nuclear and to terminate all its existing and threatened nuclear programs in a verifiably way. In return, North Korea’s security concerns and the need for economic assistance must be met by the United States in a way that are acceptable to both Pyongyang and Washington. In short, a new agreement should include obligations by both the DPRK and the United States in a balanced and verifiable manner.

Once this is achieved, which should generate much confidence and trust between the United States and North Korea, they then can proceed to address their other security concerns like ballistic missile proliferation, the North’s conventional arms, the American military presence in South Korea, and the normalization issue in the following-on meetings between the two sides to ensure a safer and more stable peninsula. But at the bottom of all these issue, one most fundamental issue must be resolved, that is, a lasting peace treaty is needed to replace the 50-year truce so as to finish the unfinished war on the peninsula. Only by concluding such a peace treaty among the directly parties involved, can emerge more propitious conditions for the lasting security arrangement as well as comprehensive cooperation in a more broad and propitious Northeast Asian context.

3) Strengthening the nonproliferation regime in the region. No matter how the nuclear crisis in the peninsula evolves, it has already dealt a heavy blow to the regional nonproliferation regime. Even if the issue is resolved in a manner like the 1994 accord, one should notice that North Korea is not the only inducing element for nuclear proliferation in the region. The region therefore should also take a comprehensive look as how to ensure an endurable regime for nonproliferation in a cooperative context.

In this regard, it is perhaps most important that the nuclear weapon states should behave in a more responsible way, and honor their obligations under the NPT to refrain from using and threatening to use nuclear weapons. It is most unfortunately ironical therefore that while trying so hard to eliminate the nuclear option in North Korea, the Bush administration announced its program of developing small nuclear bombs, which is intended to be used against North Korea. Also, the U.S. and Japanese Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) programs should be put into the Northeast Asian context to be conducive to the reduction of tension and discouraging nuclear action and reaction.

To alleviate concerns of various countries, it is perhaps useful to consider additional confidence building measures in the Korean Peninsula. To encourage greater transparency should be helpful. But that should not only aim to bind North Korea. All the other players including the United States should also take their due obligations more seriously. There is also a need to strengthen the verification procedure based on greater cooperation among the parties concerned. The role of IAEA should be encouraged and strengthened.

Last but not least, there seems also to be a need to prepare the whole Northeast Asia more conducive to the elimination of nuclear threat, assuming North Korea’s nuclear crisis finds a solution, and rejoins the NPT. To this end, it is perhaps helpful for the countries in the region to explore the feasibility of creating a nuclear free zone in Northeast Asia, which should compass the Korean Peninsula as well as Japan. Since all the three countries concerned are NPT members, and if they are supposed to faithfully abide by their non-nuclear pledges one way or the other in the future, a solid foundation does exist for the eventual realization of this nuclear free zone in the region. The United States, Russia and China should of course also each take up their due obligations.

4) A new conceptual security guideline. Critics may argue that all the above ideas are only utopian as they are too good to be true. That may be true in a certain sense. But no one expects that all of them come over horizon overnight. Moreover, if we all give up our effort to make Northeast Asia a better region to live in today, our fears will inevitably become a self-fulfilled prophecy tomorrow. All we need is adequate political will to cooperate. And political will can be developed based on a new understanding of the definition of security.

Time has been fast changing since the end of the Cold War. International relations are no longer a mere zero-sum game. The North Korea’s nuclear crisis is a fine case in point, which demonstrates that interests of all the nations in the region are so closely entwined that a confrontational and military solution to an international dispute could only make all of these countries losers.

Thus in the Korean case, it is perhaps imperative first for the United States change its security concept in order to put the cooperative approach on the right track. Security is in essence a subjective perception of each nation on its own state of affairs, and is therefore two-way street interactions in the international relations. No nation, not even a superpower, could really be safe if other nations feel threatened and are desperate to take countermeasures for their own security. Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Bush administration seems just the opposite. People like John Bolton in the Bush administration seem to believe that the best way to ensure the U.S. security is to keep all the others in fear.

In this connection, it is perhaps appropriate to take a look at the new security concept of China, which has consistently called for a comprehensive and cooperative approach to the international relations, particularly to dealing with international disputes. The gist of China’s new concept is succinctly characterized by 4 Chinese words. To put in English, they read: mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination. (38)

In light of this new security concept, “China hast been working all the time to promote the settlement of the DPRK nuclear question peacefully through dialogue and through diplomatic means so as to relax the situation on the peninsula, support the de-nuclearization on the peninsula and safeguard peace and stability in Northeast Asia”. It has played a critical and constructive role in trying to bridging the gap between the United States and North Korea in the seeking of a better way of solution. It is the author’s belief that as long as all members of the region act in the spirit of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination, the North Korea’s crisis could well be a turning point for better security in Northeast Asia into the 21st century.

(1) The paper is completed on the eve of the Six-Party Talks, which took place on July 27-29, 2003, in the hope of providing some background knowledge for the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The author wished to stress, however, that the views expressed in the paper are entirely of his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the PLA or the Chinese government, or any other organizations or individuals.

(2) The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance by Paul Kerr, Arms Control Today, January 2003

(3) Robert Gallucci, Dean at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former Ambassador-at-Large in the U.S. Department of State and chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework, "Nuclear Confrontation with North Korea: Lessons of the 1994 Crisis for Today", Center for Strategic and International Studies and Co-sponsored by Ilmin International Relations Institute, Korea University and Dong-A Ilbo, May 6, 2003,

(4) See Howard Diamond,“North Korea Freezes Missile Tests; U.S. to Lift Sanctions” Arms Control Today, September/October 1999

(5) U.S.-DPRK joint Communique. October 12, 2000,

(6)The statement is taken from Jonathan Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework”, Naval War College review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3., May 5, 2003.

(7)"Nuclear Confrontation with North Korea: Lessons of the 1994 Crisis for Today", Center for Strategic and International Studies and Co-sponsored by Ilmin International Relations Institute, Korea University and Dong-A Ilbo, May 6, 2003,

(8) For the Bush administration’s harsh policy to North Korea, which is, however, often inconsistent and confusing, see Bruce Cumings, “North Korea: the Sequel”, Current History, April 2003; Jonathan Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework”, Naval War College review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3., May 5, 2003.

(9) Alex Wagner, “Bush Outlines Terms For Resuming Talks With North Korea”, Arms Control Today, July/August, 2001,

(10) For the detailed description of the new confrontion during the talks, see, for example, See the Cold Test-What the Administration knew about Pakistan and the North Korean nuclear program by Seymour M. Hersh, New Yorker August 3, 2003

(11)See “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy”, Arms Control Today, June 2003

(12) See Jonathan Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework”, Naval War College review, Summer 2003, Vol. LVI, No. 3., May 5, 2003. P. 20

(13) For the detailed discussion about the unpredictable consequences of a U.S. military strike against North Korea, see Michael O’hanlon, presentation at 2003 Spring Forum on Tensions on the peninsula: North Korea, Northeast Asia and the United States, Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., April 24, 2003.

(14) For more of the above viewpoints, see Ashton Carter, William Perry and John Shalikashvili, “A Scary Thought on Loose Nukes in North Korea”, The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2003, and William J. Perry,” IT'S EITHER NUKES OR NEGOTIATION", The Washington Post" July 23, 2003.

(15) Mindy Kotler, "Interdiction May Not Just Modify North Korea's Behavior", the Asia Policy Weekly (APW), May 29, 2003 (

(16) See, for example, Robert Marquand, “In Korea, a Quiet US Weapons Buildup”, the Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 2003. The article reveals that the US is now sending $11 billion in high-tech equipment to South Korea confronting a nuclear crisis. The new material includes precision-guided rockets, Patriot missile-defense units, attack helicopters, and a rotating strikie force team.

(17) Doug Struck, "U.S. Focuses On N. Korea's Hidden arms: Nuclear 'Bunker-Busters' Could Damage Deterrence, Some Say," Washington Post Foreign Service, June 23, 2003

(18) North Korea Threatens 'Merciless' Retaliation Against Sanctions, Agence France-Presse, Seoul, July 1, 2003

(19) See John Pomfret, “China Says N. Korea Offered to Scrap Nuclear Program” Washington Post Foreign Service, Tuesday, April 29, 2003; Page A20


(21) Reuters, "US CRAFTING PROPOSAL ON N.KOREA'S CONCERNS-JAPAN," Tokyo, July 30, 2003

(22), Seo Hyun-jin, "NK NEEDS SECURITY, AID ASSURANCES: MINISTER," The Korea Herald, Seoul, June 24, 2003.

(23) Korean Central News Agency ("KCNA ON DPRK-US TALKS PYONGYANG," August 5, 2003.

(24) Jing-dong Yuan, China and the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, Monterey Institute for International Studies, January 22, 2003.; For more details of China’s position on the nuclear crisis in North Korea, see also Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's Press Conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, on June 24, 2003.

(25) Moon Chung-in, "A Letter to President Bush: Come Up With Mutually Acceptable Solution to NK Issue", Korea Times, May 12, 2003,

(26) For more analysis of Japan’s attitude towards North Korea during the nuclear crisis,, see, for ample, “why Japan is intensifying pressure on North Korea” Hwang Binhua, Lianhe Zaobao, Singapore, July 3, 2003.


(28) Ralph A. Cossa, “Hold the Celebrations”, PacNet 33, Pacific Forum CSIS, August 7, 2003

(29) “China and Russia agree to guarantee the nuclear-free status of the Korean Peninsula, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the security of North Korea”, Yahoo News, May 28, 2003.

(30) Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi Holds Consultation with His Russian Counterpart Alexander Losiukov, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, August 11, 2003.

(31) Robert Gallucci, Dean at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former Ambassador-at-Large in the U.S. Department of State and chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework, "Nuclear Confrontation with North Korea: Lessons of the 1994 Crisis for Today", Center for Strategic and International Studies and Co-sponsored by Ilmin International Relations Institute, Korea University and Dong-A Ilbo, May 6, 2003,

(32) See the Cold Test-What the Administration knew about Pakistan and the North Korean nuclear program by Seymour M. Hersh, New Yorker August 3, 2003. The article revealed that In 1997, according to the C.I.A. report, Pakistan began paying for missile systems from North Korea in part by sharing its nuclear-weapons secrets. According to the report, Pakistan sent prototypes of high-speed centrifuge machines to North Korea. And sometime in 2001 North Korean scientists began to enrich uranium in significant quantities. Pakistan also provided data on how to build and test a uranium-triggered nuclear weapon.

(33) See Paul Kerr, “N. Korea’s Uranium-Enrichment Efforts Shrouded in Mystery, Arms Control Today, May 2003, P. 25.

(34) For more detailed study of this view, see, for example, see Peter Hayes, “NORTH KOREA'S NEGOTIATING TACTICS AND NUCLEAR STRATEGY", April 18, 2003. In the article, Hayes argued that “ no matter how bizarre it appears to Americans, today's reprocessing threat signals that the North is still willing to bargain because if it is committed to nuclear weapons under all circumstances, then it would have been more prudent and potent to pursue this strategy by silent, secret uranium enrichment while engaging in endless talks than by undertaking public reprocessing that would simply isolate the regime.

(35) Leon V. sigal, the Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2002. 18oct 18.story

(36) Transcript: World Takes United Stance Toward North Korea, Bolton Says, Washington File, August 5, 2003


(38) for more information on China’s new concept of security, see the document entitled China’s Position Paper on the New Security Concept put forward at the ARR 9th Foreign Ministers’ meeting on August 6, 2002.

(39) Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's Press Conference on July 8, 2003.