North Korea Almost Sparks Real Debate Between Candidates

While Thursday night’s joint television appearance featuring two presidential contenders mainly revolved around their familiar quarrel over Iraq policy, the candidates skirmished over a lesser known issue: United States policy toward North Korea. President George W. Bush defended his distanced, "multilateral" approach to the isolated nation, while challenger John Kerry accused the president of allowing North Korea to gain nuclear weapons and vowed to resume bilateral negotiations.

Since inspections have turned up no biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq, the Bush administration has come under fire for attacking the largely contained regime of Saddam Hussein instead of focusing on disarming North Korea and Iran, both of which, critics point out, have much more advanced weapons programs.

Kerry took advantage of Thursday’s forum to echo this concern, accusing Bush of diverting resources to Iraq while doing little to prevent North Korea from seeking nuclear weapons.

Bush, on the other hand, defended his hardline approach to North Korea and claimed the invasion of Iraq serves as stiff warning to North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il.

The president also defended his policy on multiparty negotiations, stating the previous administration’s policy of dealing directly with North Korea had failed.

As the only foreign policy issue discussed aside from conflicts involving Islamic countries and organizations, the North Korea exchange highlighted a topic on which the candidates appear to authentically diverge. Nevertheless, most pundits and analysts avoided substantive discussion on the matter in the wake of Thursday night’s spectacle.

"Before I was sworn in," said Bush, "the policy of this government was to have bilateral negotiations with North Korea. And we signed an agreement with North Korea that my administration found out was not being honored by the North Koreans," he added, referring to the 1994 "Agreed Framework" negotiated between the Clinton administration and the North Korean government.

Under the terms of the Framework, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear power plants and freeze any program to build a plutonium bomb. In return, the U.S. said it would not attack North Korea and promised to provide the energy-needy country with two power plants fueled by light water reactors, which are more proliferation-resistant than the type North Korea was using at the time. Additionally, the U.S. agreed to provide North Korea with oil shipments until the nuclear power plants went on line.

Paul Kerr is a research analyst at the Arms Control Association, an anti-proliferation think tank and advocacy organization. He told The NewStandard that although implementation of agreements was slow on both sides, "there was pretty significant progress toward the end of the Clinton administration."

"The [plutonium nuclear] program was frozen, and it never became unfrozen until the Bush administration," he said.

Kerr also said the negotiations over North Korea’s ballistic missile program were progressing. "The North Koreans agreed to a moratorium, and they have adhered to that moratorium ever since," he said.

During Thursday’s televised forum, Kerry accused Bush of sending "mixed messages" to North Korea when he took office, and he chastised the president for failing to continue negotiations where Clinton officials left off. Indeed, no real talks took place between Washington and Pyongyang from the time Bush took office until April 2003, when the U.S. engaged in three-party meetings including China.

In the interim, Bush used his January 2002 State of the Union address to criticize North Korea for "arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens" and, along with Iraq and Iran, comprising an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." The administration also released a National Security Strategy in September of that year, which emphasized preemptive attacks against countries with "weapons of mass destruction," explicitly mentioning North Korea as such a state.

North Korea engaged in posturing of its own. When the U.S.-led effort to provide it with the promised light-water reactors fell drastically behind schedule, North Korea suggested the delays might lead Pyongyang to pull out of the Agreed Framework and renew its independent pursuit of nuclear energy.

On Oct. 16, the Bush administration announced that North Korea had admitted to a second nuclear weapons program during a visit to Pyongyang by State Department official James Kelly. During the meeting, Kelly reportedly told his North Korean counterparts that the U.S. had evidence suggesting North Korea was pursuing a uranium enrichment program.

North Korean officials insisted that they had made no such admission but had merely asserted their right to have such a program, but Washington used the alleged confession to cut off the promised fuel shipments to North Korea in November of 2002.

Pyongyang then announced it was restarting the nuclear power facilities frozen under the Framework in order to generate electricity. North Korea also disrupted the surveillance equipment monitoring its nuclear plants and materials and expelled the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors. In January, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"Before the Bush administration," Paul Kerr said, "the North Koreans had this [highly-enriched uranium] program, but that program, as far as we know, was much less advanced than their plutonium program. And now they have both."

Kerr pointed out that, under Clinton’s approach, inspectors supervised North Korea’s nuclear activities. "That’s not the case anymore," he said. "It’s not being supervised, and we don’t know what they have."

Some of Bush’s critics have accused him of acting contrary to the interests of both the American and Korean public by refusing to negotiate except under the strictest of terms, thereby delaying or altogether preventing a settlement on issues of vital interest to both countries.

According to John Feffer, author of the book North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy and the Korean Peninsula, one of the major reasons North Korea is developing nuclear weapons is its sense of vulnerability to outside attack. "This is in part an historical legacy," Feffer said in an interview with The NewStandard this weekend. "The United States threatened the country several times with nuclear strikes. … North Korea’s desire to have a nuclear deterrent was strengthened by U.S. actions in the post-Cold War period, particularly bombing attacks on Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq."

Feffer stressed the American public’s interest in preventing North Korea from gaining the ability to attack the United States or deliver weapons to parties interested in attacking the United States, and in preventing a war in East Asia that would engage U.S. ground troops.

"It is likely that North Koreans, too, would like to avert war on the Korean peninsula, for such a war would devastate their society," Feffer said. "Also, North Koreans would like to see a concrete improvement in their lives. They’d like their economy to function at a higher level. International assistance to rebuild their economy – rather than simply food aid as charity – would therefore be an appropriate part of any deal to end the nuclear crisis."

Feffer said the U.S. should engage in serious bilateral and multilateral negotiations to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for various economic incentives and security guarantees. But the Bush administration, he said, insists on complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, refusing to consider any significant compensation until North Korea fully dismantles its nuclear programs.

"North Korea has expressed its willingness to dismantle its program but wants something in return – [a] security guarantee [and] unspecified economic compensation – during the dismantlement process," Feffer said.

Nevertheless, Bush defended his decision not to engage North Korea directly, preferring to involve other nations. "I decided that a better way to approach the issue was to get other nations involved, just besides us," he said. "And so we began a new dialogue with North Korea, one that included not only the United States, but now China. … As well, we included South Korea, Japan and Russia. So now there are five voices speaking to Kim Jong Il, not just one… It’s not going to work if we open up a dialogue with Kim Jong Il. He wants to unravel the six-party talks, or the five-nation coalition that’s sending him a clear message."

If elected, Kerry said he would engage North Korea in bilateral negotiations while continuing to negotiate multilaterally, and he disputed Bush’s claim that China would walk away from the table if the U.S. were to negotiate one-on-one with North Korea.

"Just because the president says it can’t be done – that you’d lose China – doesn’t mean it can’t be done," Senator Kerry said. "I mean, this is the president who said ‘There were weapons of mass destruction,’ said ‘Mission accomplished,’ said we could fight the war on the cheap – none of which were true."

Paul Kerr agrees with John Kerry in that regard. "There needs to be a bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, and it needs to be reasonably high up from some people with clout on both sides," he said. "And why the president seems to think this would derail the six party talks, I don’t know."

Mr. Kerr also said there was no reason to believe China would back out of the six-party talks, as suggested by Bush, if Washington engaged directly with Pyongyang. "They have encouraged more U.S. engagement with North Korea," he said.

During the debate, Senator Kerry also stressed that putting an end to the United States’ own nuclear weapons development needs to become a priority, too, in order to "send the right message to places like North Korea." He pointed to the Bush administration’s research into "bunker-busting nuclear weapons."

"The United States is pursuing a new set of nuclear weapons," Kerry said. "You talk about mixed messages. We’re telling other people, ‘You can’t have nuclear weapons,’ but we’re pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using."

Nevertheless, it remains unclear exactly how Kerry would engage North Korea, aside from his insistence that both multilateral and bilateral talks would be necessary. The time rules governing Thursday’s televised event were so restrictive they left little time for the candidate to clarify the specific steps he would take.

Kerry did say he would "put all of the issues – from the armistice of 1952 [sic], the economic issues, the human rights issues, the artillery disposal issues, the DMZ [demilitarized zone] issues and the nuclear issues – on the table."

But both Feffer and Kerr cautioned against addressing too many issues at once.

"A possible first step would be for North Korea to freeze its plutonium processing facility … in exchange for a resumption of U.S. deliveries of heavy fuel oil," said Feffer. "Once this initial agreement is concluded, a measure of trust will be established. That is the major problem facing the negotiators – a lack of trust. From this first step, other issues can eventually be addressed."