While the United States has stood aside, hoping time and circumstances would force North Korea to accede to demands for denuclearization, the North has forged ahead with its own plans. Near-universal skepticism greeted Pyongyang’s announcement last year that it intended to build a light-water reactor and perfect enrichment technology to fuel it. Not two weeks ago, while visiting the nuclear center at Yongbyon during a four-day trip to North Korea, we saw that the North had begun construction of a light-water reactor that could generate 25 to 30 megawatts of electric power.
Even more important, we were taken to see a small, industrial-scale centrifuge-based uranium enrichment plant. The facility – which has more than 2,000 centrifuges – appeared well-built. It looked to contain modern equipment. The North Koreans were short on details but told us that the centrifuges were not P1 models. They said that the site was recently finished and that it was operating (a fact we could not verify from where we stood). It was meant to produce low-enriched uranium to fuel the reactor they have yet to complete, they said. Efforts to obtain light-water reactors from abroad for much-needed electricity had failed, they emphasized, so they had no choice but to make their own.
News of the North’s program will spark critics to warn that negotiations have proved worthless and that only increased international pressure can produce results. But those very arguments helped put us in this policy dilemma. Debates over whether U.S. policy or North Korean actions are to blame can wait. What is needed, right away, is a thorough review of the past 16 years of engagement with Pyongyang, analysis of the facts as we best know them and an honest assessment of the options.
The problem of the North’s nuclear program grows more difficult to resolve with the passage of time. Washington hoped that “strategic patience” and pressure from U.N.-mandated sanctions would force Kim Jong Il’s regime to submit to demands for immediate denuclearization. Skeptics warned that this approach depended on China’s willingness to squeeze North Korea and, indeed, instead of pushing Pyongyang over the past year China has strengthened its relations with the North. Their ties are better now than at any time in recent memory.
While it is unlikely that either side has dropped deep-seated suspicions of the other, there is abundant evidence that Beijing and Pyongyang see their interests as so overlapping that they will go to considerable lengths to deepen political, economic, military and security relations. Kim Jong Il traveled to China twice this year; last month he introduced his anointed successor, his youngest son, to visiting Chinese leaders. For its part, Beijing is deeply concerned about stability during the North’s political succession and has signaled willingness to support the Kims’ rule on a long-term basis. Any hope in Washington for a collapse of that rule is a weak reed on which to rest policy for a region vital to U.S. interests.
We must focus on what will best protect U.S. security and that of our allies. It does no good to say we must follow Japan and South Korea. Strong alliances should not preclude a creative U.S. approach to Pyongyang but, rather, should be used to support one.
Dealing with North Korea is not easy, and the process has been exacerbated by myths about the travails of negotiating with its regime. This is not a problem of a particular administration or party. North Korea is on the sad list of countries that, over the years, Americans have convinced themselves they cannot understand and believe, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, that it is impossible to engage. Not so long ago, of course, China and North Vietnam were high on that list.
Amid endless policy debates over whether North Korea would change or its regime would collapse, it has survived more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. It shows every sign of staying around. Those who have been to the North know that it is nowhere near as simple to categorize as media stereotypes suggest. But not many Americans have been there, and U.S. policies help ensure that relatively few North Koreans come here. Unfortunately, Americans are probably more isolated from North Korea than the North Koreans are from the rest of the world.
Being realistic about the North makes no moral judgment about its system or policies, nor does it cede anything in terms of our values or goals. U.S. policymakers need to go back to square one. A realistic place to start fresh may be quite simple: accepting the existence of North Korea as it is, a sovereign state with its own interests.
Robert Carlin, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and John W. Lewis, professor emeritus of Chinese politics at Stanford. Both have visited North Korea several times.