The political consequences of the North Korean nuclear test are likely to be severe, domestically and internationally. Eventually in Seoul and Tokyo there will be serious discussion of the virtue of continued nuclear abstinence. And the North undoubtedly learned something from its test, so it is one step closer to mating nuclear weapons to an extended-range ballistic missile capable of hitting Tokyo today and Los Angeles tomorrow. Most ominous of all, as we and our friends in the U.N. Security Council passed the toughest sanctions resolution we can--as we must, at least to set an example for others--we push the North Koreans ever closer to crossing the ultimate red line: selling fissile material to al-Qaeda. That poses a threat against which our country has no real defense and no effective deterrent. It is the most serious threat to our national security.
North Korea began building its nuclear-weapons program in the 1980s, just as it was signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. By the time President Bill Clinton was sworn into office, Pyongyang had already separated enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. The President was told by his intelligence community that if the North Korean program was not stopped, the existing reactor and two others under construction would produce, within approximately five years, enough plutonium to manufacture 30 nuclear weapons annually. In close consultation with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, the President authorized direct bilateral negotiations. Sixteen difficult months later, with the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula visibly enhanced and the threat of U.N. sanctions looming, the Agreed Framework was concluded. It clearly provided for the immediate freezing of the entire North Korean nuclear program and its eventual dismantlement--as well as the resolution of the vexing problem of the plutonium produced before Clinton took office.
This history is pretty clear, but what happens next, less so. The North complied with its obligations to freeze its nuclear program but later began to cheat by secretly receiving components for a gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility from Pakistan. The Clinton Administration planned to take up the matter with the North, but time ran out.
When President George W. Bush came into office, he, like Clinton, was confronted with a situation in North Korea--but one that was far less pressing: the plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons was still somewhere in North Korea, but no more had been separated. The entire plutonium-production program was frozen and under International Atomic Energy Agency inspection; and the other elements of the framework were on track. The problem was the secret North Korean effort to enrich uranium for a nuclear-weapons program. The Bush Administration's approach to the problem quickly took shape when it confronted Pyongyang with the knowledge of the secret program and the demand that the North give it up before any further negotiations could take place. When Pyongyang refused, the U.S. abandoned the Agreed Framework, prompting North Korea to do likewise--kicking inspectors out, starting up the reactor, separating plutonium and announcing the acquisition of a deterrent.
What are we to make of this brief history? It is difficult to see how the current situation can be said to have resulted from the Clinton policy of engagement. Indeed, what has the current policy, which is far more resistant to negotiating, gained us? It may be righteous, denying North Korea the reward of bilateral talks, but it has failed to secure U.S. interests.
There are now--and have always been--only three options available to deal with the North Korean problem: military force, sanctions and negotiation. Although the military option was available but unappealing a dozen years ago, it is barely so today. Limited targets, little reserve force to deal with retaliation and an ally in Seoul hostile to military action argue against that option. Sanctions, always limited by what China would permit, will not force North Korean compliance and amount to a policy of containment or acceptance of a growing North Korean nuclear-weapons program. That poses unacceptable risks to our nation's security.
That leaves negotiation--genuine negotiation in which we expect to get what we need and concede to the North at least some of what it wants. Our objective should be to focus on the country's nuclear program, insisting on its complete dismantlement and a full accounting of fissile material. We must be prepared to meet Pyongyang's concerns too--security assurances, energy assistance (including those proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors) and eventual normalization of relations. And there must always be an "or else"--that is, we must persuade Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing to support even more painful sanctions if necessary in the future so that the North is properly motivated. That is by far the best course, and we had better get on with it.
Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, was the chief U.S. negotiator of the Agreed Framework