The 2nd US-North Korea Nuclear Crisis - Negotiations or War?

Date July 2, 2003
Speaker C. Kenneth QUINONES(Director, Korea Peninsula Program, International Center)
Moderator SOEYA Yoshihide(Faculty Fellow, RIETI / Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University)


When I first went to North Korea, in 1992, I expected to see a Stalinist state, but it became clear to me that it is foremost a country of Koreans. North Korea has done a good job of creating an image that is most negative. There is no positive news coming out of this country. And, we are on a slippery slope toward potential armed confrontation.

In October of last year, US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to North Korea and found his worst nightmare, that North Korea had secretly started a new nuclear weapons program. Ever since, the level of crisis has been growing. The North Korea problem is not new. The problem has been a lack of durable peace in Northeast Asia, an imbalance on the Korean Peninsula. It has been 50 years since the Armistice and we are now closer than ever to war.

What are our options? One option is to recognize the danger; the other is to ignore it. North Korea is a danger: it has a million-man army; its nuclear arms can hit Japan and South Korea; and its people are convinced that the US and Japan are threats. This is their reality. Kim Jong Il is determined to survive at any cost; he does not worry about bringing others down in the process. So what are the options? War? Negotiations? Over the years, I have seen these two approaches play out.

One option is a soft landing. This approach envisions transforming North Korea from a hostile authoritarian state to an authoritarian state that is less hostile and more open. This is an option that most observers prefer and it is the approach I favored for many years. Then I met with my North Korean counterpart and determined that the soft landing is no longer an option. Why?

In January 2001, negotiations were not possible because President Bush was conducting a policy review. Later, the US said that it was ready for a dialogue without preconditions, but in fact there were six preconditions. A dialogue expresses what governments want, while negotiations involve give and take. Assistant Secretary Kelly tried to have a dialogue lead to negotiations, but North Korea had broken its promises. North Korea had miscalculated that it would be able to coerce the US government; governments do not like to be coerced. What followed is everything since 1994 unraveled, and, meanwhile, Kim Jong Il's nuclear program has been moving along and acquiring more plutonium. It is now possible that North Korea would test a nuclear device. So a soft landing is not a real option. The price of disarmament will only increase after North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, and negotiating North Korea's collapse is impossible.

That leaves the hard landing option. A hard landing could come from a clash between North Korea and another state or group of states, or from the collapse of North Korea under its own failure. I do not see North Korea collapsing economically: North Korea has improved relations with China and gets food and oil from the Chinese; its relations with Russia have gotten better since 1992; its relations with the EU have improved as well; North Koreans are studying abroad all over Europe and Australia. And there is a new player: South Korea is now the North's third largest trading partner.

What about a coup? One was attempted in 1996, and Kim Jong Il subsequently had all of his generals executed. Kim has conducted several purges since. The prospects for a coup have thus decreased. So, a hard landing would most likely come from a conflict between North Korea and Japan, South Korea, and the US. Why? There are no negotiations being held now and preconditions will only increase in the future. And Kim will not bow to the US; his military would not support it and he does not have the credibility his father had. It is a political reality.

What pulled us back from war in 1994? The Chinese were pivotal; they said they would not block sanctions on North Korea, thereby signaling to Kim that the international community was serious. Former President Jimmy Carter allowed Kim to save face by offering another channel outside the Clinton administration.

While we quibble, Kim goes ahead and builds a nuclear arsenal. Next time we talk, it will be with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The price to negotiate will be outrageous after they test a nuclear device. In 1994, there was optimism that you could negotiate; there is no such optimism now. And even if you do negotiate, you cannot solve the crisis. It is a new game.

Questions and Answers

Q: The Bush policy review may have convinced Kim that he had more breathing room vis-a-vis Japan. What is your take on the possibility of Japan-North Korea negotiations?

A: I do not want to put the burden on Japan. I do not think Japan or the US can convince North Korea to disarm, so the problem would not be solved. Nuclear weapons are North Korea's ticket to survival. The nuclear card was negotiable, but now Kim sees no benefit in letting it go. My preference would be for an international effort to convince North Korea that it has gone down the wrong path. I do not think either US administration should be blamed. Kim's decision was based on North Korea's analysis of US power supremacy, as exemplified in the first and second Iraq wars.

Q: What are the rules of the new game? I sense a bit of deja vu here. North Korea rationalized it development of a nuclear program as a way to economize on its military expenditure. This rationale is similar to the USSR's decision in the 1980s in Europe. The Soviet's decision created a new game in the European theater, and, as a reaction to this new situation, the US developed its own weapons and started the star wars program. The result was that the USSR ended up sitting down to negotiate. Could this kind of scenario play out with North Korea?

Q: How will US elections affect policy toward North Korea?

Q: Would a surgical strike on North Korea lead to war?

Q: I wonder if you are giving up on the soft landing too soon. North Korea must know what the consequences of conflict with the US would be. The Bush administration perceives the greatest threat coming from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, so the US could ostensibly use force even if it meant that North Korea would attack Japan or South Korea. Maybe there is a new soft landing that is possible.

A: As for the surgical strike, if you launched a strike, by F-16s for example, on Yongbyong, you would only release radioactive dust, which would poison people in Japan. A surgical strike cannot function. The new rules are being written as we speak. The US moved its troops away from the DMZ. It was a smart move because it shows that the US is responding in kind to a new game.

I would like a soft landing, and the involvement of NGOs and South Korea has been positive. The UN flag is now seen as a symbol of hope in North Korea. There is an overemphasis of the hard line approach in the current US administration. Kim has worked hard to prevent reform. The Peace Corps were told to go home because they were too subversive for Kim's regime. You are not going to change Kim's regime: you have to either destroy it or anticipate it. Meanwhile, it would be advisable to prepare for a post-soft landing situation. We should preempt Kim by making it clear to him that he is heading down a hard landing path and the international community agrees.

Q: Bush says all options are on the table. Is this a credible statement? I do not think North Korea believes the military option is credible.

Q: What about encouraging a greater role for sunshine policy?

Q: If there were a hard landing, would the US attack North Korea alone or with its allies?

Q: What is the human rights situation in North Korea?

A: There are no human rights in North Korea. If you work for the collective good, you live; if you don't, you are erased. Kim would exploit pressure from human rights groups. I do not think the US plans to attack North Korea; Bush's statement is credible that all options are open. But a military option is not the focus at this point. International relations are unpredictable. If the US went to war with North Korea, Japan would send naval assets, such as minesweepers, which would be put in harm's way, according to contingency models. Sunshine diplomacy was a broad effort, and it takes time to take effect. This diplomacy must continue and South Korea has been making refinements: it no longer sends cash, but rather sends farm equipment, which is sent through benign organizations like the World Food Programme. North Korea relies on coercive diplomacy, and the State Department's channel of communication with North Korea does not have the Bush administration's political support.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.