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Previous Pacts May Inspire Deal on N. Korea

Security assurance may take form of executive order or resemble an accord with Iran.

October 22, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's promise to try to work out multilateral security assurances for North Korea in exchange for nuclear disarmament is unusual but by no means unprecedented, former diplomats and security experts said Tuesday.

However, it will take diplomatic heavy lifting to work out such an agreement among the five nations that are trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs. Even then, many doubt that Pyongyang would agree.

President Bush, on a week-long trip to Asia, has said that he was willing to put in writing his verbal promise that the United States would not attack North Korea, as part of a multilateral security pledge that would include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Administration officials have not offered specifics, saying they need to consult with allies before making any proposals. But the offer was seen both as an effort to stifle grumbling among U.S. allies, who have complained that Washington was too inflexible in its approach to Pyongyang, and to help the Chinese persuade the North Koreans to return to the bargaining table.

The administration has long insisted that it would not sign the type of nonaggression treaty North Korea has demanded. Moreover, the administration probably would face a fight with conservatives in the Republican-controlled Congress for approval of any security guarantees.

But the president could offer security assurances in the form of an executive order or a presidential undertaking on North Korea that would not be a treaty or subject to Senate approval, said Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Lawyers at the State Department and National Security Council are studying at least two other U.S. pacts as possible models for a deal with North Korea, sources said.

The first was signed with Algeria in 1981, when Washington was trying to secure the release of hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranians refused to negotiate with what they termed the "Great Satan" in Washington. Using Algeria as an intermediary during protracted talks, the U.S. promised Algiers that it would unfreeze Iranian assets and "not intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." In return, Iran released the American hostages.

"If the North Koreans get a security guarantee signed by the U.S. but guaranteed by China, that would add a considerable measure of credibility," said Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council official who worked on the hostage deal. "And I can see the advantages on the U.S. side of not doing a bilateral deal."

The second deal that might be considered a precedent occurred in 1992, when the United States offered security assurances to Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in exchange for an agreement by the three newly independent Soviet republics to give up the nuclear weapons or nuclear production capabilities that were left on their soil after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Under the agreement, the United States, Russia and Britain promised not to attack any of the three or use "economic coercion" against them. The new nations signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and received substantial U.S. aid.

Under that deal, the United States and its allies also promised to seek United Nations help if any of the nations was threatened by aggression with nuclear weapons -- but it stopped short of promising to defend them in the event of a Russian attack, said Robert. L. Pfaltzgraff, professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School.

"It was an assurance, not a guarantee," Pfaltzgraff said. He noted that the closest thing to a guarantee the United States has ever signed is the North Atlantic Treaty, which declares that an attack on any NATO member would be treated as an attack on all. The United States would not consider this type of treaty for North Korea.

"We've given [security] assurances in a variety of ways in the past, and we've done this with regard to allies, but we haven't done it with enemies." Pfaltzgraff said.

What the White House probably has in mind for North Korea is a security declaration joined by the other major states to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of North Korea, said Victor Cha, a North Korea specialist at Georgetown University.

"The rub is that the North Koreans are going to want something more formal," Cha said. "They've been asking for a treaty, but then they say they don't believe in a treaty anyway, since the U.S. violated the U.N. charter by invading Iraq."

Late Tuesday, North Korea said through its official KCNA news agency that the U.S. offer was "laughable" and not worth considering. It repeated the call for a bilateral treaty.

Nevertheless, Cha and other analysts viewed Bush's new tack as a positive development that would give America's partners something to work with.

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