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Surprise Kim With a Solution

June 08, 2003|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

NEW YORK — North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, loves to spring surprises. His latest came May 23, when the North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Nations invited Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon, a hawkish Republican whose views mirror the Bush administration's, to lead a congressional delegation to Pyongyang.

Weldon's group left for a three-day visit May 28, and the news it brings back is what has been rumored for some time: North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Moreover, North Korean officials told the visiting delegation that they plan to make more devices to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein. But they added that negotiations could settle the nuclear problem, and Weldon concurred.

Though this is hardly good news, North Korea's olive branch and mention of possible negotiations represent a welcome change because its leader's behavior since last fall has amounted to distilled belligerence. In October, in the face of irrefutable U.S.-gathered evidence, North Korea conceded it had a covert uranium-enrichment program. Over the next several months, it proclaimed the right to build nuclear weapons; dismantled the monitoring equipment of the International Atomic Energy Agency and kicked out its inspectors; withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; and prepared to restart its reactor at Yongbyon.

This bellicosity effectively killed the 1994 "agreed framework," under which Pyongyang was supposed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water reactors (more tamper-resistant by design than existing North Korean units) that were to be monitored by the IAEA. The Bush administration did not mourn the demise of the accord, which it considered flawed in concept and execution, and said it would not succumb to nuclear blackmail. Kim, already frustrated because construction on the new reactors had barely begun (they were to have been completed this year), responded by upping the ante. Washington and Pyongyang were on a collision course, and panic spread in South Korea and Japan, not least because of the Bush team's often-stated fondness for regime change and preemptive strikes.

Kim's brinkmanship and cheating created the crisis, but the U.S. has also made missteps. President Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric in January 2002 accurately described North Korea's despotism, but its main effect was to fan Pyongyang's reflexive bellicosity, which appears to have culminated in a decision to build nuclear weapons as an insurance policy. We may think that North Koreans can't possibly think we would attack them, but they seem to anyway.

Bush invaded Iraq to dismantle what he claimed was an extensive weapons-of-mass-destruction program. There's no doubt that North Korea has such a program, one that poses a threat far more dangerous than did Hussein's Iraq.

What should the administration do? Forcible regime change in North Korea would produce a horrific war. What's left is multilateral diplomacy: enlisting the help of China, Japan, Russia and South Korea to persuade Pyongyang to renounce nuclear weapons, reenter the nonproliferation treaty and accept IAEA inspections in exchange for economic benefits. Deep down, however, the Bush folks seem queasy about this approach; it smacks of the wimpy Clintonism they so revile.

Bush has staked much of his reputation on destroying terrorism and staunching the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And his administration has said repeatedly that a North Korea with nuclear weapons would infinitely worsen both problems.

Enter Weldon and company. Before flying to Pyongyang, the congressman insisted that his bipartisan delegation did not represent the White House or the State Department and would not negotiate with anyone. But he would not have set out for North Korea if either Kim orBush were opposed to negotiation: Pyongyang approached Weldon, and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Bush did not urge him to stay home. There's also something to talk about: Pyongyang would not have invited a congressional delegation just to tell it that North Korea had nuclear weapons.

The Weldon trip is an opportunity for bold action. Here's a plan:

* The United States could agree to one-time bilateral talks with North Korea if Pyongyang would accept that multilateral negotiations -- including South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- would follow. Not only would Kim, who has said he will talk only with the U.S., save face, but the Bush administration also would avoid the North Korean effort to split the U.S. from South Korea and Japan using bilateral talks.

* The United States, together with Japan and South Korea, could offer North Korea economic aid provided that it destroys its nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner, closes its nuclear installations and accepts full-scope IAEA safeguards, including surprise inspections. The Bush administration has already endorsed such a quid pro quo, and Weldon emphasized it before he departed.

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