This commentary originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on September 21, 1999

The threatened test of North Korea’s long-range Taepo-Dong II missile has apparently been averted¾ for now. Talks between U.S. and North Korean officials have resulted in a loose pledge from the North not to take any actions that would disrupt improving relations as long as talks continue. Washington officials interpret this statement to include a ban on missile tests and North Korea has not challenged this view.

Obviously, North Korean pledges cannot be taken at face value. The 37,000 U.S. troops in Korea and our allied military assets must remain prepared to counter any real threat from the North. Our intelligence assets must remain focused on North Korea’s missile facilities to ensure compliance with any deal. This initial agreement, however, is a welcome step towards a more stable East Asia. In order to prevent further regional flare-ups, the United States must now do what it failed to do in 1994¾ follow through on the opportunity to improve relations and establish broader diplomatic and economic contacts in exchange for an end to North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programs.

Staying Focused

The current situation is nearly identical to the one that followed the signing of a nuclear "Agreed Framework" between Pyongyang and Washington in 1994. At that time, North Korea agreed to "freeze" itsnuclear program in exchange for modern, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors and closer relations with the United States, including the establishment of diplomatic and economic relations. The deal ended a headlong rush toward armed conflict and, despite allegations of cheating, North Korea’s nuclear program remains frozen.

For its part, the United States has formed an international coalition, including Japan and South Korea, to build new reactors in the North. But the Clinton Administration has been slow to meet its other obligations, such as providing the North with heating fuel, and establishing diplomatic and economic contacts, due mainly to congressional opposition. North Korea has reacted angrily to these delays and, now, has successfully used the threat of additional missile tests to re-capture Washington’s attention.

There has been a disturbing tendency in the Clinton Administration to focus mainly on issues in the headlines and then quickly lose interest as they are replaced by other news. Now, after failing to stay on target in 1994, Washington has a second chance to improve the security outlook in East Asia by seizing the opening provided by the latest set of talks. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, serving as President Clinton’s special advisor on North Korea, has proposed a package deal of incentives and concessions to the North after visiting there this past winter. This proposal may have led to North Korea’s renewed willingness to negotiate.

Step by Step in Korea

The unpredictable North Korea has now established a fixed pattern of brinkmanship, followed by a willingness to negotiate an end to weapons programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic ties. In order to avoid further trips to the edge, the United States and its allies should seize the new opening and take the following steps:

  • First, the United States should agree to open a consulate in Pyongyang in exchange for a written pledge by the North not to flight test any long-range missiles. North Korea has been pushing for more formal diplomatic relations with the United States since South Korea established formal ties with Russia and China. A written pledge, while not legally binding, would help solidify international support against North Korea should it later decide to proceed with its missile program.
  • Second, the United States and its allies should agree to lift key economic and trade sanctions against the North, in exchange for a signed and verified commitment by the North not to transfer missile technology or equipment to other states, especially Iran or Pakistan. Stopping North Korea’s exports of missile technology would cap the single greatest source of ballistic missiles on the global black market. The lifting of sanctions will allow North Korea to export raw materials and gain foreign currency, which could be used to pay for much needed agricultural assistance, but might also be funneled into North Korea’s sagging military. It is essential, therefore, that any direct humanitarian assistance be implemented with rigorous safeguards to ensure it helps citizens, not soldiers.
  • Third, the United States, South Korea and Japan, with the cooperation of China, should work to implement a broader set of diplomatic and economic steps along the lines of those proposed by Secretary Perry. While the security situation is not yet ripe for such a package deal to take root, a freeze on North Korea’s missile program and its nuclear activities at least allows both countries to pursue talks on more normal relations.

As part of the U.S. Government team implementing the 1994 Agreed Framework, I saw how much North Korea values the possibility of normal ties with the United States. Joining the international community, and the promise of improved economic conditions, is a powerful lure, and can be effectively used to lead Pyongyang away from developing weapons of mass destruction. Reaching such a deal, however, will require the Clinton administration¾ and its successor¾ to stay on target and follow through on this month’s agreement.

Any deal with North Korea will quickly come under fire from congressional conservatives, who will accuse the Clinton administration of capitulation and succumbing to blackmail. While no one prefers a situation where improved relations come only thought bluff and bluster, failure to end the North Korea missile program, and the inevitable export of completed long-range systems, would unravel the security system in East Asia. A missile and arms race in the region would have far greater consequences for the United States and its allies than the risks posed by making a deal with Pyongyang¾ especially one that should have been made five years ago.

Jon B. Wolfsthal is an Associate with the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project and a former Department of Energy special assistant. He served as a DOE on-site monitor in North Korea in 1995 and 1996.