A new expert report recommends changing U.S. policy on North Korea denuclearization to focus more on interim steps and crisis-stability measures.
A paper by the National Security Network and the National Committee on North Korea argues a change of approach is needed as the current policy of refusing to engage until Pyongyang first takes serious disarmament steps "risks de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power."
Since the last round of multinational aid-for-denuclearization negotiations were held in late 2008, Pyongyang has made serious headway in its march toward a deliverable nuclear weapon. Two more underground atomic tests have been held in the ensuing years, as well as the successful launch of a satellite-carrying space rocket that could serve as the basis of an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea also is thought to have improved its designs for a prototype road-mobile strategic missile, and to be moving rapidly to expand its capacity to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
In response, the Obama administration has maintained its "dual-track" policy of enforcing strong sanctions against the North, while holding out the possibility of renewed negotiations should Pyongyang take concrete steps toward irreversible denuclearization. A nascent 2012 U.S.-North Korea agreement that would have provided the impoverished country with a quantity of U.S. food assistance in exchange for a moratorium on further nuclear and missile testing died in the cradle, after Pyongyang unsuccessfully attempted to launch a space rocket.
The policy paper, released on Wednesday, suggests trying to reach another moratorium agreement and resuming International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of nuclear facilities. Those could serve as interim steps to build confidence for reinvigorating the long-frozen denuclearization talks, according to the analysis.
"Significant changes in regional dynamics greatly increase the chance of more durable success for a renewed attempt," the paper states. "Beijing can be expected to play a larger role today than it did in 2012."
The paper calls for a "strategic shaping" approach toward the North Korea nuclear impasse that would focus on proactive engagement and strengthening crisis-management tools. Among the suggested measures for improving the diplomatic climate with Pyongyang are restarting a joint U.S.-North Korean military mission to retrieve the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War and holding more informal, expert-level "Track 2" talks.
Report co-author Bill French, a policy analyst with the National Security Network, told Global Security Newswire a more intense focus on crisis management could be critically important.
"The main thrust here is while there is an uncertain probability of achieving a deal with North Korea and while there is a similar uncertain probability of North Korea reneging [on it], there is a very high probability on the other hand that if diplomatic engagement and crisis-management mechanisms are not put in place ... that the situation is likely to worsen in a way that" could decrease U.S. national security, he said.
There are signs the United States is already refocusing on crisis management. The 2014 annual joint military drills under way currently with South Korea are not expected to include any prominent participation by U.S. heavy bombers, according to officials. When the U.S. military last year touted a practice bombing sortie over South Korea by a pair of U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft, North Korea was so infuriated that it deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles to its eastern coach and primed them for firing.
National Committee on North Korea Executive Director Karin Lee, who co-authored the report, in a Wednesday phone interview said there is a window of opportunity for Washington to reach out to Pyongyang.
"We do have a particular opportunity right now because South Korea is making progress in its approach of gradually rebuilding contact with the North," she said. "This gives us an opportunity to engage diplomatically ourselves."