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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Number 159, March 1999

A Comprehensive Approach to North Korea

by Richard L. Armitage*

Since the Agreed Framework (AF) was signed by the United States and North Korea on October 21, 1994, the security situation on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia has changed qualitatively for the worse. The discovery last year of a suspect North Korean nuclear site and the August 31 launch of a Taepo Dong missile have combined to raise fundamental questions about Pyongyang's intentions, its commitment to the agreement, and the possibility of North-South reconciliation. These developments also raise profound questions about the sustainability of current U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula.

The Agreed Framework successfully addressed a specific security problem-North Korea's plutonium production at the Yongbyon and Taechon facilities. Under the agreement, operations were frozen at the two facilities and Pyongyang was prevented from obtaining fissile material from the fuel rods of the reactor core for five to six nuclear weapons. Had the program continued unabated, North Korea might have been able to produce enough fissile material for a substantial nuclear arsenal. Arguably, the Agreed Framework was a necessary but not sufficient response to the multiple security challenges posed by North Korea. Indeed, the development of the Taepo Dong missile poses an expanding security threat to Northeast Asia and, increasingly, to the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States itself.

*Ambassador Richard L. Armitage is President of Armitage Associates and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. He chaired a working group on U.S. Policy Toward North Korea whose members included: Johannes A. Binnendijk, Institute for National Strategic Studies; Peter T.R. Brookes, House Committee on International Relations; Carl W. Ford, Ford and Associates; Kent M. Harrington, Harrington Group L.L.C.; Frank S. Jannuzi, Minority Staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Robert A. Manning, Council on Foreign Relations; RADM Michael A. McDevitt, USN (Ret.), Center for Naval Analyses; James J. Przystup, Institute for National Strategic Studies; GEN Robert W. RisCassi, USA (Ret.), L-3 Communications Corporation; and Ambassador Paul D. Wolfowitz, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied in this paper are solely those of the working group and do not represent the views of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency or nongovernment organization.

Changing Assumptions

Experience in dealing with Pyongyang since the Agreed Framework was signed challenges several critical assumptions on which public and Congressional support for U.S. policy has been based.

  • The first is the assumption made by some senior administration officials that the Agreed Framework had ended North Korea's nuclear program.

  • The second is that North Korea is a failed state on the verge of collapse and that a "hard landing"-collapse perhaps accompanied by aggression-should be avoided.

  • The third is that the Agreed Framework would induce North Korea to open up to the outside world, initiate a gradual process of North-South reconciliation, and lead to real reform and a "soft landing."

These assumptions suggested that, even if little progress was made on other political/security issues, the Agreed Framework was an effective, time-buying strategy. At a minimum, North Korea's conventional capabilities would continue to degrade (as they have). Optimally, the North would solve our problems by ultimately reconciling or uniting with the South. These assumptions are now open to question.

Reality Check

The disclosure of at least one suspect site-on which construction began prior to the agreement-reinforces the possibility that Pyongyang has frozen only a portion of its nuclear program or is seeking to develop a covert nuclear weapons program. The Agreed Framework was structured to become stronger over time in constraining the North's nuclear weapons capability. This meant deferring the requirement for the North Korean nuclear program to come into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full-scope safeguards until roughly 2002-03. In effect, the agreement accepted the possibility that North Korea might have one or two nuclear devices. Since 1994, it is also possible that Pyongyang could have acquired additional nuclear weapons technology and/or fissile material from external sources.

Moreover, the core assumption of imminent collapse is seriously flawed. Despite severe hardships, there are no signs of regime-threatening social or political unrest, or military disaffection. As underscored in its 50th anniversary celebration last year, the North Korean regime appears to have consolidated itself under Kim Jong Il.

There are also no signs that the regime is contemplating any radical market-oriented reforms. Instead, forced by necessity, it is experimenting at the margins with modest reform to alleviate food shortages at the local level and gain hard currency. With Chinese aid and a variety of hard currency schemes-missile exports, counterfeiting, narcotics trafficking, selling overflight rights-the regime has been able to keep urban areas minimally functioning. By all appearances, the regime may be able to stagger on indefinitely.

Starvation has not politically weakened the regime. As demonstrated in the cases of Ukraine under Stalin and China under Mao, there is not necessarily a connection between human misery and the stability of the regime in a totalitarian system. The regime has been willing to destroy an entire generation to preserve its power.

At the same time, Pyongyang has spurned the political overtures of the most conciliatory president in the history of the Republic of Korea, Kim Dae Jung. President Kim has written volumes on Korean unification, including plans for reunification that are similar to those offered by the late Kim Il Sung. The unwillingness to deal seriously with Kim Dae Jung suggests a fundamental fear that North-South reconciliation would undermine the legitimacy of the regime in Pyongyang.

President Kim's Sunshine Policy (now known as the Engagement Policy) has established a formula for reconciliation on the peninsula, while deferring the ultimate goal of reunification as a practical matter. To date, Pyongyang has responded to Seoul's economic, social, and cultural nongovernmental overtures, but has rejected any political reconciliation with South Korea. Moreover, as evidenced by recent incidents of military infiltration, it continues its aggressive behavior.

Who Is Buying Time?

The notion that buying time works in our favor is increasingly dubious. A growing body of evidence suggests that it is North Korea that is buying time-to consolidate the regime, continue its nuclear weapons program, and build and sell two new generations of missiles, while disregarding the well-being of its 22 million people. Kim Jong Il's assumption of the post of Chairman of North Korea's Military Commission has raised the influence of the armed forces. These developments have created an increasingly dangerous security environment in Northeast Asia.

Indeed, North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the development of missile delivery systems have combined to pose an enhanced threat to the security of Japan. This threat has grown even as Japan has continued to support the Agreed Framework and its light-water reactor project. Yet we cannot expect Tokyo's continued support for approaches to Pyongyang that fail to address Japan's security concerns.

North Korea's provocative actions and belligerent posture have challenged-and taken advantage of-our interest in stability. For Pyongyang, the lesson of the past four years is that brinkmanship works.

Foundation for a New Approach

A Congressionally mandated review has made it clear that current policy toward North Korea is politically unsustainable. Similar political pressures are today evident in Japan and may soon surface in the Republic of Korea. The appointment of former Secretary of Defense William Perry to conduct a review of policy toward North Korea is an important step in fashioning a policy that is politically viable and protects the vital interests of the United States and its allies.

A new approach must treat the Agreed Framework as the beginning of a policy toward North Korea, not as the end of the problem. It should clearly formulate answers to two key questions: first, what precisely do we want from North Korea, and what price are we prepared to pay for it? Second, are we prepared to take a different course if, after exhausting all reasonable diplomatic efforts, we conclude that no worthwhile accord is possible?

Current policy is fragmented. Each component of policy-implementing the Agreed Framework, four-party peace talks, missile talks, food aid, POW-MIA talks-operates largely on its own track without any larger strategy or focus on how the separate pieces fit together. In the absence of a comprehensive policy, North Korea has held the initiative, with Washington responding as Pyongyang acts as demandeur.

A successful approach to North Korea must be comprehensive and integrated, and must address the totality of the security threat. The stakes involved should make Korea a matter of the highest priority for the President. This will require sustained attention to manage the issue with Congress, our Korean and Japanese allies, and China. The diplomacy leading to the Agreed Framework had such focus when Robert Galucci was named special coordinator, reporting directly to the Secretary of State and the President. Unfortunately, after Ambassador Galucci left his Korea post in 1995, no successor was named.

The logic of the policies pursued by the United States, its allies, and China has been one of muddling through. This has allowed North Korea to obtain economic benefits while maintaining its military threat. Given the opacity of North Korea's totalitarian regime, its decision-making process is unknowable. Only by fairly testing Pyongyang's intentions through diplomacy can we validate policy assumptions. If a diplomatic solution is not possible, it is to our advantage to discover this sooner rather than later in order to best protect our security interests. If North Korea leaves no choice but confrontation, it should be on our terms, not its own.

One cannot expect North Korea to take U.S. diplomacy seriously unless we demonstrate unambiguously that the United States is prepared to bolster its deterrent military posture. This can be done without appearing to threaten Pyongyang. At the same time, policy should provide an adequate incentive structure to any forces inside the North Korean elite who may be inclined to believe that the least bad choice for survival is one of civil international behavior and opening. To convince the North to modify its posture, we need a larger conceptual framework, with greater incentives and corresponding disincentives.

The first step toward a new approach is to regain the diplomatic initiative. U.S. policy toward North Korea has become largely reactive and predictable, with U.S. diplomacy characterized by a cycle of North Korean provocation (or demand) and American response. The intention is to be proactive and to define the agenda.

This begins with setting new terms of reference. Diplomacy must fashion an initiative that integrates the entire spectrum of security challenges, while enhanced deterrence must address what we are prepared to do, should diplomacy prove inadequate.

Our strategy must be closely coordinated with our allies. It must integrate Tokyo's interests and assets, as well as Seoul's Engagement Policy and defense capabilities. Such integration, at a minimum, would strengthen the U.S. alliance structure, while positioning Washington to deal more effectively with Pyongyang.

A new approach to North Korea will necessarily test China's intentions. Beijing was helpful in the process leading to the Agreed Framework, and the United States publicly cites that cooperation as a major payoff of its China policy.

But China is also pursuing its own agenda. Beijing is sustaining North Korea with aid, despite Pyongyang's apparent unwillingness to heed its advice. China has resisted active cooperation-with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organi-zation, with the World Food Program, and on missiles. Its independent actions pose a challenge to any successful U.S. policy. No approach to North Korea is likely to succeed absent some modicum of active cooperation from-and clear understanding with-China. Beijing must understand that it will either bear a burden for failure or benefit from cooperation.

Operational Elements of A New Comprehensive Approach

We would propose a new comprehensive approach for management of the problems posed by North Korea. The package should combine the elements of deterrence and diplomacy cited below. This package is not offered with any unwarranted optimism regarding what is possible vis--vis North Korea. Thus, the strengthening of deterrence is central to this package.

To make a comprehensive approach sustainable politically, it is critical to start with and maintain close coordination with Congress. To be successful, policy toward the Korean peninsula requires a foundation of strong bipartisan support. A regular mechanism for executive-legislative interaction should be developed. The former Senate Arms Control Observer Groups on U.S.- Soviet relations can serve as a model.

To protect U.S. and allied interests, a strengthening of deterrence must support diplomacy. Deter-rence depends essentially on the proper blend of diplomacy, declaratory policy, and demonstrable military capability. As a result, if diplomacy fails, North Korea should be faced with the consequences of its choice: isolation or containment in an environment in which U.S. leadership and alliance structures have been reinvigorated and strengthened, allowing the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan to act together.

The following steps are critical to bolstering credible deterrence:

  • The United States should encourage Japanese leaders to accelerate the timetable for Guidelines Legislation, and to underscore the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to Tokyo's security interests in the region and beyond.

  • The United States should call for a trilateral (the United States, Republic of Korea, and Japan) defense ministers consultative meeting to address a range of peninsula contingencies. In particular, this meeting should consider actions to implement force enhancement options, which might include agreements to increase counter-battery radar around Seoul and deploy more Patriot batteries to Japan from Europe and the continental United States. Public statements should also focus on deepening missile defense cooperation, as well as a spectrum of military exercises to deal with a variety of North Korean actions.

  • "Red Lines" should be drawn. The United States, together with the Republic of Korea and Japan, should clarify what is unacceptable behavior and underscore that provocative military action by North Korea will not be tolerated and will provoke a response.

  • The Pentagon should undertake a review of the American presence in South Korea, not with a view to reduction, but to ensure that U.S. forces can optimally deal with the evolving nature of the North Korean threat.

  • As a separate but related action, the Pentagon and the commander in chief of Combined Forces Command in the Republic of Korea should conduct a review to determine what mix of surveillance, radar, and other weapons is required to improve the defense of Seoul against bombardment or surprise attack. To underscore alliance commitments, the United States should also announce that it is prepared to augment forces in theater.

To enhance the prospects for the comprehensive package and to advance U.S. and allied interests, diplomacy must be closely coordinated with Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing.

  • The U.S. point person should be designated by the President in consultation with Congressional leaders and should report directly to the President. This step also aims to move the issue to the highest possible level of decisionmaking in North Korea.

  • Diplomacy should seek to align South Korean and Japanese policies to influence positively North Korean behavior as well as to reinforce military deterrence.

  • The United States should propose a trilateral (United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan) foreign minister-level consultative meeting. The goals should be to name high-level point persons, establish coordinating mechanisms, and raise the issue to the level of a presidential national security priority. Trilateral coordination should reach understandings on a division of responsibilities for the comprehensive proposal.

  • China's active cooperation is vital. Because the United States and China share common interests with respect to the Korean peninsula, we expect China to act in a positive manner. Active cooperation will enhance Sino-American relations. However, if conflict occurs as a result of inadequate cooperation, Beijing will bear a heavy responsibility. Moreover, the burden of keeping North Korea on "life support" will fall squarely on China if our diplomatic initiative fails.

The Comprehensive Package

United States objectives should be maintaining and as necessary strengthening deterrence, and eliminating through peaceful means the military threat posed by North Korean nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional weapons and missiles. Our goal is to reduce the risks to the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. To the extent the threat cannot be eliminated, the goal is to contain the residual threat. In addition, the United States seeks to facilitate South-North reconciliation.

Washington should table an offer that meets Pyongyang's legitimate economic, security, and political concerns. This would allow the United States to seize the diplomatic initiative as well as the moral and political high ground. It would also strengthen the ability to build and sustain a coalition if North Korea does not cooperate. Most importantly, the failure of enhanced diplomacy should be demonstrably attributable to Pyongyang.

The objective of negotiations should be to offer Pyongyang clear choices in regard to its future: on the one hand, economic benefits, security assurances, political legitimization, on the other, the certainty of enhanced military deterrence. For the United States and its allies, the package as a whole means that we are prepared-if Pyongyang meets our concerns-to accept North Korea as a legitimate actor, up to and including full normalization of relations.

Negotiations would address the following:

1. The Agreed Framework: We should make clear our intention to honor existing commitments, but also underscore that the political and security environments have deteriorated significantly since October 1994 because of North Korea's actions. To sustain support for the agreement, it is imperative that the issues regarding the suspect site(s) and missiles be addressed.

  • Sites: We should note that suspect sites are covered in the "confidential minute" to the Agreed Framwork. Our objective is to have a credible mechanism to increase on-going transparency of the present site-but not be limited to that site. The United States should make it clear in a unilateral statement that the comprehensive package encompasses any suspect site in North Korea.

  • Plutonium: To bring North Korea promptly into compliance with IAEA safeguards, we need to prepare for IAEA inspections under the agreement. North Korean cooperation in preserving the historical record of its past nuclear activities is critical. In addition, a new bargain should include early removal from North Korea of the nuclear spent fuel currently in storage at Yongbyon.

  • Quid pro quo: Accelerating the process of resolving site questions, and the issue of IAEA compliance, could likely require a U.S. commitment to expedite the construction of the two light-water reactors, and negotiation of a United States-North Korean nuclear cooperation agreement.

2. Missiles: North Korean missiles have become a far more prominent problem than was the case when the Agreed Framework was signed. It implicitly puts the missile problem on the agenda. Our near-term objectives are to end testing and exports, and, over the long term, to obtain North Korean adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime limits. However, if missile exports continue and the United States can identify them, we should do what we can to intercept those shipments. We will make it clear that we will act under the UN Charter's right of self-defense.

3. Conventional threat: The United States should table a proposal for confidence building measures to begin a process aimed at reciprocal conventional force reductions. Any new peace mechanism should be linked to the reduction of the conventional threat.

4. Food/economic assistance/sanctions: The United States should continue to provide some humanitarian food and medical aid with the caveat of increased transparency on distribution. But, our emphasis would be on assisting North Korean economic restructuring. We would support actions that open its economy to market forces. We are prepared to further ease sanctions and support its membership in the international financial institutions, recognizing that this requires change on the part of Pyongyang. If the North takes the necessary steps, the United States, with its allies, should consider establishing a Korean reconstruction fund within the World Bank or Asian Development Bank.

U.S. diplomacy must integrate Seoul's Engage-ment Policy (e.g., government approval of investment projects, particularly large industrial investment by major firms known as Chaebol) with the broad policy objectives of the comprehensive package.

As a step-by-step roadmap to a more cooperative relationship, economic benefits beyond humanitarian aid should be phased in as North Korea implements threat reduction measures. In the context of an economic assistance package, the United States could consult with North Korea to review the energy component of the Agreed Framework to develop alternate energy sources.

5. Security assurances: The United States, along with the Republic of Korea and Japan, should propose a six-party (the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea) meeting to deal with the security of North Korea. A multilateral commitment should be based on the pledges made in Kim Dae Jung's inaugural address-that we have no intent to implode North Korea, to absorb North Korea, or to force North Korea to change its political system. Assurances could run the gamut from a pledge of nonaggression to a commitment to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of North Korea. Our goal should be to foster an environment making it as easy as possible for Pyongyang to choose reform. The United States and its allies should make it clear that we are prepared to coexist with a less threatening regime in the North.

6. Normalization: If North Korea satisfies our security concerns, the United States should be prepared to move toward full normalization of relations.

Should Diplomacy Fail

The one enduring element of this initiative-irrespective of North Korea's response-is the reinforcing of U.S. leadership in maintaining stability and enhancing security in this critical region. The U.S. effort to strengthen security cooperation with our key allies-the Republic of Korea and Japan-is an integral part of this leadership and becomes even more central to regional security.

The virtue of this initiative is that it will test North Korea's intentions, discover whether diplomacy holds any real possibility of yielding positive results, and, in the process, restore U.S. leadership. This would enable us to bolster a coalition to deter and contain North Korea. It is aimed at leaving Pyongyang significantly worse off than if it had chosen a future of cooperation on mutually beneficial terms.

Should diplomacy fail, the United States would have to consider two alternative courses, neither of which is attractive. One is to live with and deter a nuclear North Korea armed with delivery systems, with all its implications for the region. The other is preemption, with the attendant uncertainties.

  • Strengthened deterrence and containment. This would involve a more ready and robust posture, including a willingness to interdict North Korean missile exports on the high seas. Our posture in the wake of a failure of diplomacy would position the United States and its allies to enforce "red lines."

  • Preemption. We recognize the dangers and difficulties associated with this option. To be considered, any such initiative must be based on precise knowledge of facilities, assessment of probable success, and clear understanding with our allies of the risks.

We are under no illusions about the prospects for success of the comprehensive package outlined above. The issues are serious and the implications of a failure of diplomacy are profound.


The Strategic Forum provides summaries of work by members and guests of the Institute for National Strategic Studies and the National Defense University faculty. These include reports of original research, synopses of seminars and conferences,the results of unclassified war games, and digests of remarks by distinguished speakers.

Editor in Chief - Hans Binnendijk

Editor - Jonathan W. Pierce



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