The U.S. strategy to counter North Korea’s announced intention to conduct a nuclear weapons test has been to try to muster international pressure on North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il. Most analysts seem to doubt that will work. So the Bush administration would be left in its standard position of carefully constrained diplomacy, pressing for harsher economic sanctions aimed at forcing a collapse of the Kim regime, and dark hints of possible military action if all else fails.
The long series of six-nation talks has been stalled since September 2005, when North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programs as part of a proposed deal with concessions and incentives on both sides. Pyongyang walked out when the Bush administration promptly pressured all banks in the world not to handle any transactions involving North Korea.
Leading officials in Pyongyang would neither confirm nor deny reports that they were preparing for nuclear tests, according to independent specialist on North Korea, Selig S. Harrison, who has just returned from meetings there. The officials suggested that tests were unnecessary, since they already had functioning nuclear weapons. But they told him that they planned to speed up the next unloading of fuel rods in the Yongbyon nuclear reactor to reprocess more plutonium by the end of this year. They explained the speedup not as a threat but as a bargaining chip to get the negotiations started again.
Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said: “It’s very important to us to resume the six-party talks because we would be the big beneficiaries if the September 19, 2005 declaration is implemented.” But first he wanted the burdensome financial sanctions ended, which were imposed after the Treasury Department’s discovery of North Korean counterfeiting operations. Mr. Harrison reported instances in which the banking restrictions blocked legitimate imports of industrial equipment for light industries making consumer goods.
Mr. Harrison, a former foreign news correspondent and now director of the Asia Program of the nonprofit Center for International Policy, wrote that he saw the only way to break the deadlock in the six-party talks is through bilateral negotiations to resolve the sanctions issue in a face-saving compromise.
He quoted Mr. Gwan as saying: “We really want to coexist with the United States peacefully, but you must learn to coexist with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons. You have learned how to live with other nuclear powers, so why not us?”
He went on: “We are definitively prepared to carry out the September 19 agreement step by step, but we won’t completely and finally dismantle our nuclear weapons program until our relations with the United States are fully normalized. That will take some time, and until we reach the final target, we should find a way to coexist.”
Stubborn? Arrogant? Maybe so. But the United States has very few alternatives.