North Korean Realities

Posted Aug. 08, 2009, at 12:52 p.m.

Growing demands for more sticks and fewer carrots in dealing with North Korea ignore two basic truths: North Korea is already a nuclear weapons state, and threats and pressure against it have not worked.

An experienced analyst of the matter, Selig S. Harrison at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, has a ready answer for those who are pressing for tougher sanctions and withholding further economic aid.

“Five nukes is better than 50,” says Mr. Harrison, who has met with high officials in the North Korean capital many times, most recently in last January. He favors opening up a bilateral dialogue, with Bill Clinton’s recent visit as a stage-setter, arranging for resumption of the suspended six-nation negotiations, and discussing terms for resuming the disablement of the Yongbyon reactor, while capping the North Korean nuclear arsenal at the present declared 4 or 5 weapons.

He says the Obama administration should signal a complete change in the U.S. policy by moving promptly toward establishing normal diplomatic and economic relations and accepting the fact that North Korea, for the time being, is and will be a nuclear weapons state.

Mr. Harrison, who summers on Little Cranberry Island, contended on the televised “NewsHour” last week that moving to cap North Korea’s nuclear weapons at four or five would be simply a recognition of reality and a step in the process of proceeding toward denuclearization.

He rejected the common belief that North Korea reneged on its commitments and thus broke off the six-nation talks that involved both Koreas, the United States, Russia, China and Japan. On the contrary, he said, Japan had never delivered the 200,000 tons of oil that it had promised in return for gradual disablement of the Yongbyon reactor, and the United States and other nations had not fulfilled that pledge. The plant has now returned to operation.

Mr. Harrison reported a new turning point in U.S.-North Korean relations on his return from Pyongyang. For 18 years, the United States had offered normalization as a reward for denuclearization. Now North Korea was asking the United States to reverse the sequence, to pursue denuclearization through normalization. “They want us to accept them as a nuclear weapons state during a period of transition to normalization and eventual denuclearization.”

Verification problems lie ahead if negotiations get back on track. North Korea says it will submit to inspection of its nuclear program, but it also wants an inspection in South Korea to make sure that U.S. nuclear weapons there have been removed.

The United States is right in fearing further weapons production by North Korea and sales to such countries as Syria and Myanmar. But North Korea remembers President Bush’s hard line and his listing it as part of an axis of evil.

Trust on both sides should be the goal, and threats and pressure are no way to get there.

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