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11.24.10

Obama's Only Choice on North Korea

As the U.S. dispatches a carrier to the region, experts who have recently visited Pyongyang warn the Obama administration that the only choice to resolve the conflict is direct negotiations.

As the Obama administration dispatches an aircraft carrier to the region, following North Korea’s deadly and unprovoked shelling of South Korea, experts warn that the United States only has one choice in dealing with Kim Jong Il’s regime: direct negotiations.

That’s the message from several American Korea experts who have recently visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and talked to its leaders.

Contrary to what has been advocated by the Pentagon, the Obama administration, and members of the Republican party, these experts say that direct negotiations are the only way to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, and eventually move toward a peace agreement to formally end the conflict.

“The only way out of this box is to negotiate,” Leon V. Sigal, the director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, told The Daily Beast. Sigal, who visited Pyongyang last week with two former State department officials, added: “North Korea is prepared in detail to do things advantageous to the United States that are not impossible to do.”

“I know it’s very hard to talk to these guys, but there’s no other way.”

The Obama administration, however, has made it clear that no talks with the North Korean government of Kim Jong Il are possible until the regime abandons its nuclear weapons program. In the wake of the shelling incident, President Obama announced that U.S. and South Korean forces will hold joint military exercises in the region that will include the aircraft carrier George Washington and other U.S. Navy warships. "We've had an underlying philosophy of not rewarding bad behavior with concessions," a senior administration official told reporters.

In recent days, however, North Korea has opened the door for a possible shift in policy. In their meetings with North Koreans, Sigal and former U.S. officials Joel Wit and Morton Abramowitz were told that Pyongyang is prepared to ship out all of its nuclear fuel rods, the key ingredient for producing weapons-grade plutonium, to a third country in exchange for a U.S. commitment to pledge that it has “no hostile intent” toward the DPRK.

Such a pact could set the stage for reopening the Six Party talks, which were initiated during the Bush administration by the United States and South Korea to end the nuclear standoff. Those talks, which also involve Japan, China, and Russia, have faltered over questions of verification and compliance. They have also been complicated by a series of reckless military actions on the part of North Korea, which is widely considered to be one of the world’s most repressive police states where at least a million people have died from starvation over the last 15 years.

Leslie H. Gelb: The Next Korean War?North Korea, in turn, has accused Washington and Seoul of reneging on earlier agreements, including a promise to supply energy for North Korea’s moribund economy in return for shutting down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. (It remains closed). Pyongyang was also disappointed when President Obama broke a campaign pledge to talk directly with Pyongyang and, instead, intensified U.S. sanctions.

This week’s news that North Korea has built a new facility to enrich uranium and is building another reactor is a sign that those sanctions have failed, asserted Sigal. Without direct negotiations, he said, North Korea was likely to keep enriching uranium, restart its reactor at Yongbyon, conduct another nuclear test as it did in 2006, and test more missiles. “I know it’s very hard to talk to these guys, but there’s no other way,” he said.

Sigal’s views were supported by the three Americans who were shown North Korea’s new uranium enrichment plant earlier this month. "You have to address the fundamentals of North Korean security," Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, told an audience in Washington on Tuesday. Stanford Professors Robert Carlin and John W. Lewis, who accompanied Hecker to North Korea, wrote in The Washington Post that “being realistic about the North makes no moral judgment about its systems or policies.” The United States must start by “accepting the existence of North Korea as it is, a sovereign state with its own interests,” they argued.

A second option, analysts said, is to take steps to de-escalate the tense military standoff near the disputed maritime border on the west coast between North and South Korea. That line, drawn unilaterally by the U.S. Navy when the Korean War ended in 1953, has never been recognized by the North. It has been at the center of many of the military clashes between the two countries in recent years, including Tuesday’s artillery battle.

The “skirmish” began, South Korean authorities said, when Pyongyang warned Seoul to halt a huge military drill in the area that involved over 70,000 South Korean troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters and 500 planes. Seoul refused to stop, and commenced firing artillery rounds into the disputed waters. The North retaliated by shelling the island of Yeonpyeong, subjecting civilians and private homes to what the Korean daily Hankyoreh called “indiscriminate attack.” John Feffer, the author of a 2003 book on the United States and North Korea who has written critically of Kim Jong Il’s authoritarian government, said the incident underscores the dangers of military exercises at a time of volatility. “This is what happens when you take a confrontational approach near a disputed border,” he said.

The area near Yeonpyeong is where North Korea allegedly torpedoed and sank a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, in March, sending 46 sailors to their death and sharply escalating tensions. According to Sigal, who recently published a detailed history of North-South clashes, the Cheonan may have been targeted by North Korea to avenge an incident in November 2009, when the South Korean Navy fired shots at a North Korean vessel that crossed the demarcation line, killing several North Korean sailors.

Naval clashes in the western area escalated after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative businessman who rejects South Korea’s previous policies of détente, unilaterally backed away from a summit agreement reached by his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, with Kim Jong Il in 2007. That agreement included a pledge to establish a joint fishing area in the region and to discuss measures to build military confidence that might help avoid future clashes. Had those steps been carried out, said Sigal, the recent confrontations might have been avoided. Washington’s role on the Korean peninsula is critical because the United States maintains 28,000 ground troops in South Korea and holds operational command over Korean forces in times of war—an aberration that makes South Korea the only country in the world in such a situation.

Christine Ahn, a fellow with the Berkeley-based Korea Policy Institute and a longtime peace activist, said Tuesday’s events underscore the need to bring a final end to the Korean War and demilitarize the peninsula. “Not having a peace treaty leaves room open for these kinds of skirmishes,” she said. “No one wants to live under the constant threat of war, North or South.” 

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based investigative journalist and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, Mother Jones, The Nation and many other publications at home and abroad. He can be reached through his website at timshorrock.com.