Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s upcoming visit to North Korea is the latest in an avalanche of diplomatic initiatives promising a more secure future in the Koreas and East Asia. Successful talks would vindicate the Clinton Administration’s approach to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. Lost in the momentum to engage North Korea, however, is the realization of just how hard it will be to address all the outstanding security issues involving North Korea, including Pyongyang’s missile and conventional military programs. Optimism is justified, but so is the need for realism.


North Korea is economically challenged, diplomatically isolated, and militarily unpredictable. Hundreds of North Korean ballistic missiles, and thousands of long-range artillery pieces, are within range of Seoul. Moreover, Pyongyang may already possess enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons. While the diplomatic picture has improved, the military picture has changed very little. Addressing the "hard" issues of missiles, conventional military, terrorism will be the metric against which progress with North Korea will be measured.


The past six years have seen remarkable progress in the overall Korean political situation. The signing of the nuclear Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea in October 1994 marked a watershed that helped establish the hypothesis that North Korea was more interested in engaging the United States than in attacking it.


The summit between the President of North and South Korea this past summer broke the dam on North-South dialogue, a long-standing US condition to improved relations with the North. Furthermore, toned down North Korean rhetoric, reciprocal visits by separated Korean families and North Korea’s decision to accelerate the return of U.S. soldiers’ remains from the Korean War, enabled relations to improve.


There is no doubt that the diplomatic situation has improved dramatically. The last hurdle, however, is the highest. The United States, South Korea, Japan and other states remain concerned — and rightly so — about North Korea’s missile capabilities and sales. In addition, the forward deployed nature of North Korea’s conventional military poses a serious threat that will need to be addressed through high-level dialogue.


North Korea has abided by its moratorium on missile tests while negotiations with the United States continue. Moreover, North Korea has indicated a willingness to end its missile program and exports for some type of compensation (including access to space launch services or financial payments). The dual-use nature of space launch vehicles makes it all but impossible to envisage handing rockets capable of doubling as ICBMs over to North Korea. But the option of launching Pyongyang’s satellites from a third country (assuming they can build or buy them from somewhere) should be fully explored.


Conventional Weaponry

North Korea has over 4,000 long-range pieces of artillery aimed at and within range of Seoul, and hundreds of thousands of troops within a few kilometers of the inter-Korean border. These issues of forward deployed troops and long-range artillery will also play an important role in the ongoing U.S.-North Korean dialogue. Any agreement would require much more than promises, however. Considerable verification and transparency procedures -- including national technical means, official exchanges of visits, and notification of exercises -- would need to be worked out. While these techniques have been discussed for years in the Korean context, few have ever been implemented and doing so will require hard work and persistence by the United States and North and South Korea.


On the political and diplomatic front, North Korea has expressed considerable interest in replacing the Koran War armistice with a formal peace treaty with the United States. Beginning such talks is a major North Korean goal likely to be discussed during the Secretary of State’s visit. In exchange, the United States is likely to seek North Korean statements supporting further inter-Korean dialogue and renouncing terrorism.


The United States will be more focused on the hard security concerns, including the missile and conventional military issues. While no details of a potential missile agreement have emerged, it is not hard to predict what shape such an agreement might take.



  • End North Korean missile development in exchange for access to space launch services.


  • Trade an end to North Korean missile exports for a large-scale, multi-year aid package of development, medical, economic and agricultural assistance (avoiding large cash payments).


U.S. efforts in the past decade may finally be paying off, and the administration should seize the opportunity offered by Albright’s visit. No one, however, should have illusions about the hard work ahead.