Shifting tack, the United States now says it is willing to talk with North Korea about ending its nuclear-arms programs, without Pyongyang having to take any first steps to meet its international obligations. Analysts say the United States has no choice but to seek a new deal with Pyongyang to have any hope of staunching North Korea's proliferation activity.
Washington, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With North Korea threatening war with the United States, Washington has announced a subtle policy shift following talks with Japan and South Korea aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush said after the talks in Washington that it is willing to talk to North Korea about how it can work with the international community to meet its obligations concerning its nuclear-weapons programs.
Previously, the administration had rejected any possibility of direct talks until Pyongyang returned to compliance with its international nuclear-arms agreements.
But in an apparent bow to pressure from South Korea, which has been urging the United States to talk to Pyongyang, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington is willing to talk with North Korea but will offer no further incentives for dismantling its nuclear program.
Speaking after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly met in Washington with Japanese and South Korean officials to discuss the crisis, Boucher told a briefing: "North Korea's relations with the entire international community hinge on its taking prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle its nuclear-weapons program and come in full compliance of its international commitments. That's what we mean by North Korea meeting its obligations. We're willing to talk to North Korea about how they can do that."
Just hours before Boucher spoke, tensions on the Korean Peninsula had hit a new high as Pyongyang threatened war if the United States seeks to punish it with new economic sanctions.
"Sanctions mean a war and the war knows no mercy," Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency said. "The U.S. should opt for dialogue with [North Korea], not for war, clearly aware that it will have to pay a very high price for such reckless acts."
Boucher said the United States is not considering sanctions against Pyongyang.
The standoff with Pyongyang has been escalating since October, when U.S. officials said North Korea acknowledged in a meeting with Kelly that it has been pursuing a secret nuclear-arms program in violation of agreements with the United States and the international community.
Led by Washington, the international community retaliated by cutting off oil shipments that North Korea had received under a 1994 deal with the United States in return for mothballing its nuclear complex at Yongbyon and putting it under United Nations supervision.
Pyongyang responded in recent weeks by kicking out the last inspectors and taking steps to restart Yongbyon, which experts say could produce enough material to soon add several nuclear weapons to the one or two that U.S. officials believe North Korea already possesses.
A joint statement yesterday by the United States, South Korea, and Japan urged Pyongyang "to undo these measures and not take any precipitous action" and "to completely dismantle its nuclear-weapons program."
Washington has been very careful not to appear willing to give North Korea anything in response to Pyongyang's recent moves, saying that would amount to giving in to "nuclear blackmail."
But Boucher said the United States has had a long-standing offer on the table to pursue a new "bold approach" on improving relations with North Korea if it significantly changes its behavior.
He said Assistant Secretary of State Kelly had been set to offer the plan to Pyongyang when he visited last October but was thwarted when the North Koreans confirmed his suspicions that they had a secret program to enrich uranium for weapons.
Boucher suggested that if Pyongyang did meet its obligations, then that "bold approach" could begin. "We're willing to talk to them about the overall picture, but once again, we're not willing to provide a quid pro quo for them to meet their obligations. And really, North Korea has to be willing to meet its obligations for this [idea of a 'bold approach'] to serve any particular purpose," Boucher said.
But if North Korea pursued a secret weapons program for years in violation of international agreements to which it had vowed to adhere, can it really be trusted to honor any future promises it may make?
Jon Wolfstahl is deputy director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Wolfstahl, who says Bush has no choice but to risk a new deal with North Korea, told RFE/RL that such an agreement might actually work. "I think there is a possibility -- depending on how much intrusiveness we get -- to have a very strict, stringent agreement with North Korea that can stick. We need to tell the North Koreans face to face what we expect them to do and what steps we would need in order to verify [their compliance] in terms of on-site inspectors and access to facilities, which I think would have to be even more intrusive in many respects to what we have today in Iraq," Wolfstahl said.
North Korea is believed to be a major global proliferator of missile technology and other weapons programs. Wolfstahl said the danger now is that North Korea could eventually turn into a sort of plutonium factory for rogue buyers around the world, including possibly international terrorists.
If the United States cannot take measurable steps to stop such a scenario from developing, Wolfstahl said a death blow will be dealt to efforts to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- and a far more dangerous world would be the outcome. "If that happens, then almost everything else you're doing in the field of nonproliferation, from negotiating treaties and norms to securing nuclear material in different countries, becomes less valuable, because the basic premise of the nonproliferation regime is that it's very hard to get your hands on nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons materials. And if that premise is eliminated, then almost everything else you're doing becomes worthless," Wolfstahl said.
Pyongyang, which is demanding a nonaggression pact with the United States, says it is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program to defend against a possible preemptive U.S. strike.
U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly said, including on both 6 and 7 January, that the United States has no hostile intentions toward North Korea and that the issue is Pyongyang's noncompliance with agreements it has signed, not U.S. aggression.
On Monday, the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged North Korea to allow the inspectors back in or else it would take the issue to the UN Security Council.
That move is considered a last resort. The council could authorize punitive sanctions or other actions against North Korea.