Experts Call for Steps to Jump-Start North Korea Nuclear Engagement

Then-outgoing U.S. special envoy on North Korea policy Stephen Bosworth, right, and his successor, Glyn Davies, left, prepare to participate in a rare round of talks in Geneva in October 2011 aimed at reviving long-stalled denuclearization negotiations with North Korea. A new expert report recommends that the United States alter its policy toward Pyongyang to focus more on crisis-stabilization mechanisms.
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Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Feb. 26, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

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.”

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