A Nuclear Fission: The North Korea Debate in Washington

By Cha, Victor | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Nuclear Fission: The North Korea Debate in Washington

Cha, Victor, Harvard International Review

It has been widely speculated that there is a debate within the administration of US President George Bush regarding policy toward North Korea. At one end are the Pentagon hawks who prefer some form of regime change as the most ideal, effective, and enduring solution. As Maureen Dowd of the New York Times commented on April 21, 2003, the hawkish camp led by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld generally includes US Vice President Dick Cheney, US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, New York Times writer William Satire, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the Defense Policy Board (including Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Harry Rowen), and the US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton.

At the other end of the debate on North Korea are the moderates led by US Secretary of State Colin Powell. They believe that disarmament of North Korea is best achieved through continued discussion. Members of this group do not believe that US engagement will change North Korean intentions. Yet they argue that talks with North Korea will bring about a negotiated settlement and will build a coalition among concerned countries for taking action if engagement fails. Individuals in the "Powell camp" include Director of Policy Planning Richard Haass, most of the US Foreign Service, US Senator Joe Biden, political journalist Bob Woodward, and many in the liberal media and academic elite.

The split in views on North Korea became particularly apparent during the US-Sino-North Korea talks in Beijing in August 2003. Pyongyang's 11th-hour threat to reprocess plutonium led to vigorous internal debates about possible countermeasures. Those in the Powell group advocated continuing the talks. Those in the hawkish group opposed US attendance at the talks and, after the decision to attend was made, tried to replace James Kelly, US Assistant Secretary of State and leader of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, with John Bolton as the US delegation head.

While policy gaps on North Korea clearly exist, they are not nearly as wide as the press suggests. Both parties involved agree that the United States should not tolerate North Korea's blackmail attempts, and that Pyongyang needs to come clean on its nuclear weapons programs before any form of engagement can be considered. Where differences do lie are in how one should define "coming clean." While Pentagon hawks might demand total disarmament before serious engagement, others are considering more flexible requirements for negotiations to start. The bottom line is that both groups demand real, immediate, and irreversible steps by North Korea toward disarmament.

Both groups are concerned about North Korea's admission of April 2003 to chief US negotiator James Kelly, that it possesses nuclear weapons. Pundits wrote off the admission, because it only confirmed what intelligence estimates had suspected for some time. Advocates of engagement with North Korea saw its nuclear confession as an almost desperate cry for negotiation. They reasoned that North Korea had put its weapons on the bargaining table in exchange for US security assurances and international aid. In spite of these assessments, I believe that both groups saw that Pyongyang's nuclear confession brought it one step closer to recognition as a nuclear state, one of North Korea's major goals.

It is widely agreed that the premeditated nature of the nuclear weapons admission, which was made on the first day of meetings, fits well with Kim Jong Il's ultimate goal. What North Korea wants is not a simple quid pro quo of nuclear disarmament for US security assurances. What Kim Jong Il really wants is bilateral negotiations with the United States to attain security assurances and international support, and to retain an extant nuclear weapons arsenal.

This suspicion is further confirmed by the North Korean delegation head Li Gun's statements to Kelly at the end of the first day of the Beijing talks.

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