The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says it will never give in to what it calls North Korea's nuclear "blackmail." But some analysts say that Washington's offer this week of a broad package of aid in return for an end to Pyongyang's nuclear-arms program amounts to just that, giving in to its demands. They add, however, that Washington has little choice.
Washington, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two or three weeks ago, unidentified U.S. officials were quoted as saying that Washington was considering economic sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
The United States, President George W. Bush declared, would not give in to what he called Pyongyang's nuclear "blackmail," its attempt to threaten the United States with developing nuclear arms in order to extract economic and political concessions from Washington. North Korea responded by threatening to destroy the United States in a "firestorm" of "all-out war."
Today, the United States is adopting a different strategy, one that analysts say is more like the engagement attitude of the previous Clinton administration than the hawkish Bush approach of a few weeks ago.
On 14 January, Bush suggested for the first time that Washington would consider offering what he said is a "bold initiative" of economic, food, and energy aid, plus diplomatic recognition and perhaps some kind of security agreement, provided Pyongyang first give up its nuclear-arms program.
In comments to reporters at the White House, Bush insisted this new initiative would not amount to giving in to "blackmail." "People say, 'Are you willing to talk to North Korea?' Of course, we are. But what this nation won't do is be blackmailed," Bush said.
North Korea yesterday rejected Bush's offer, saying Pyongyang would not accept unilateral disarmament as a condition for talks or aid.
Analysts and the U.S. media, however, say the administration's new tack is quite different from its approach of even last week, when it first offered to talk to Pyongyang about disarming but not about what it may get in return for surrendering its weapons programs.
A caption beneath a photo of Bush in yesterday's "The Washington Post" pointed to the apparent contradiction: "President Bush says the United States will not be 'blackmailed,'" the caption said, "and linked aid to North Korea's nuclear disarmament."
Ivo Daalder, a member of former President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, suggested at a recent forum on North Korea at Washington's Brookings Institution think tank that Bush is merely trying to save face by insisting on not being blackmailed. "The reality is that if a country has a certain capability, it can use that in negotiation. Whether that's a nuclear capability or is something else, if we want something from another country, it can 'blackmail' us into giving something in return. This is true of a trade negotiation. It's true of any negotiation. It's true of a marriage contract," Daalder said.
Daalder said that after initially taking a hard line with Pyongyang, which Bush has bracketed with Iraq and Iran in what he calls an "axis of evil," the Bush administration then sought to play down the severity of North Korea's reported admission last fall that it had a covert program to enrich uranium for bombs.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said last month that the matter was not a crisis, a move analysts said the United States hoped would keep international attention focused on Iraq, where Washington is threatening to go to war if Baghdad does not fully disarm.
But since then, Daalder said, the North Koreans have complicated matters even further by restarting the banned Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which analysts say could produce the materials for several nuclear weapons by summer, and by announcing their withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "The North Koreans quite tactfully and masterfully escalated, as one would have expected, drawing the United States into a crisis and basically showing that the policy the administration was pursuing has serious problems," Daalder said.
He said the main problem with that policy is that the isolation of North Korea would require the support of regional partners, yet neither Russia, China, South Korea, nor Japan backs the isolation of Pyongyang.
Second, Daalder said that isolation basically tells the North Koreans that it's all right for them to pursue the development of nuclear weapons.
Thus, according to Daalder, the Bush administration, although it denies it, has basically ended up where it never wanted to be, in a position very much like that of the Clinton administration, that is, seeking a broad deal with Pyongyang in which aid is exchanged for disarmament.
One of the main sticking points for the United States remains Pyongyang's demand for a nonaggression pact. Washington has repeatedly said that it will not agree to such a pact, while offering assurances directly from Bush that it has no intention of attacking.
But U.S. officials are now being quoted in the U.S. media as saying that Powell is exploring ways to get around the administration's refusal to enter into such a pact while at the same time offering North Korea some kind of guarantee that Washington will not attack.
"We're thinking of ways that involve a formal, signed statement from the United States," one unidentified administration official was quoted as telling "The New York Times." "And maybe a parallel statement from the [UN] Security Council."
Indeed, internationalizing the issue is a key part of Washington's strategy, which seeks to get North Korea's neighbors to pressure it to back down while leaving the issue of Pyongyang's violations of international nuclear agreements to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Richard C. Bush III is a senior fellow at Brookings' Northeast Asia Policy Studies Center. He told the forum on 14 January that some headway on defusing the crisis may have been made with China's invitation this week to host direct U.S.-North Korean talks in Beijing.
Neither Washington nor Pyongyang has yet to respond to the invitation, but the analyst said it is significant since it involves a possible increase in the participation of China, North Korea's main benefactor, which sells it fuel and food at reduced rates. "This [invitation], I think, suggests China may be becoming more of a stakeholder in this issue, taking ownership of it. It is in another sense hitting the ball into North Korea's court. Will North Korea offend its sort of Chinese neighbor by not taking up this offer?" Richard Bush said.
Richard Bush said China has a different set of interests on the Korean Peninsula than does the United States. It doesn't want a nuclear North Korea or a collapsed country that floods China with refugees. However, it also wants to retain its influence in Korea and does not want to see any eventual U.S. dominance through the peninsula.
Richard Bush, who said Russia has also signaled its willingness to help break the impasse, said that the position of both Moscow and China on the North Korean issue could ultimately be tested if the matter comes before the UN Security Council.
The IAEA is expected to hold an emergency board meeting at its Vienna headquarters next week to ask the Security Council to take up North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
IAEA Director Mohammad el-Baradei said after talks in Moscow yesterday that he is hopeful that diplomacy from several regional capitals will help defuse the crisis, adding that Russia is particularly well-placed to broker a solution.