Search Asia Times

Advanced Search


Kerry dead wrong on North Korea
By Marc Erikson

In last Thursday's first presidential debate focused on foreign policy, Senator John Kerry charged that the Bush administration had neglected the North Korean nuclear threat and said he would resume bilateral talks with North Korea if elected.

A return to the pre-2001 [former US President Bill] Clinton framework of bilateral negotiations would be an egregious foreign and security policy blunder with far-reaching and dangerous consequences. President George W Bush's reply to Kerry that, "The minute we have bilateral talks the six-party talks will unwind. That's what Kim Jong-il wants," were on the mark. So were remarks by China's foreign minister Li Zhaoxing the same day that, "the entire international community agrees that the six-nation approach is the best way to deal with the problem," and represents "the only feasible and correct option".

So, what's wrong with a return to bilateral US - North Korea talks on the 1993 - 2000 model? Pretty much everything - on the reasonable assumption, at any rate, that one wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program(s) without resorting to military force.

The 1994 US - North Korea "Agreed Framework" (signed October 1994) provided that Pyongyang would "freeze" and later dismantle its nuclear facilities in return for being supplied with proliferation-proof nuclear reactors. It didn't work. Inspection and enforcement mechanisms proved inadequate. The US (and South Korea and Japan) went slow on starting reactor construction (now abandoned). In October 2002, the US charged that North Korea had started - and admitted to starting - an enriched uranium program for a second track of weapons development circumventing inspection of the Yongbyong plutonium enrichment plant. Pyongyang has since denied possession of uranium enrichment facilities. But testimony by Pakistan's one-time nuclear weapons program chief AQ Khan that he supplied North Korea with centrifuge technology for production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in return for missile technology certainly lends plausibility to US charges.

The rest is (recent) history. North Korea in early 2003 expelled UN inspectors from Yongbyong, pulled out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and started reprocessing 8,000 spent-fuel rods extracted from the Yongbyong reactor. On September 27, North Korean vice foreign minister Choe Su Hon told a news conference at the UN, "We have already made clear that we have already reprocessed 8,000 wasted fuel rods and transformed them into arms," adding that, "We declared that we weaponized this."

Senator Kerry, incidentally, seems to believe in the veracity of Choe's statement. In the debate with Bush, he claimed, "There are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea. That happened on this president's watch." Note, however, that while it's true that 8,000 reprocessed fuel rods could yield enough weapons-grade plutonium for eight nuclear devices and that North Korea may have been in possession of enough plutonium prior to the 1994 agreement for two more, plutonium-based nuclear weapons are much more difficult to construct than HEU-based ones and certainly would need to be tested for any assurance they wouldn't fizzle.

Be that as it may, Kerry is wrong to call for a return to bilateral talks. Kim Jong-il may loathe the US and vilify it, but he fears China. When Bush agreed with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin at a late October 2002 meeting at Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch that, "Both sides will continue to work toward a nuclear weapons-free Korean Peninsula and a peaceful resolution of this issue," and Jiang said, "We're completely in the dark as far as the recent development [North Korea's US-alleged admission of having a uranium program], but today President Bush and I agreed that the problem should be resolved peacefully," a major diplomatic-strategic breakthrough had been achieved.

Following that, and perceiving the opportunity for playing a lead role in resolving a crucial regional and global strategic issue, China went all out in bringing North Korea into six-way negotiations even as Kim insisted that only bilateral talks with its main enemy, the US, could succeed in crisis resolution. A first round of six-way talks in Beijing in April 2003 (North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, and the US) made no discernible progress. At that point, China began to play hard ball. Oil deliveries from China to North Korea were interrupted as the result of a "pipeline failure". In mid-August 2003, General Xu Caihou, head of the People's Liberation Army's general political department (recently appointed deputy chairman of the central military commission), was deployed to Pyongyang on a "goodwill mission" (Xinhua) to meet with vice marshal Jo Myong-rok and Kim Jong-il, but - in effect - to read them the riot act, telling them that, "the six-way talks are not an opportunity to waste." [Note that Xu is a former political commissar of the Jinan military region bordering North Korea and that in the time frame of his Pyongyang visit several added PLA divisions were deployed to Jinan and replaced border police units.] The late-August six-way talks were more productive.

China - and no one else - has the political, military and economic wherewithal to rein in North Korea and, over time, the ability to make sure that progress is made. There is no urgent need to act, no deadline by which North Korea must be forced to accept nuclear disarmament as long as China is prepared to keep the peace. The Bush administration to all appearances understands that. Kerry, judging by his debate points and earlier statements, does not. His chief adviser on the issue, Clinton defense secretary William Perry, is a hawk on North Korea. Were he to get back into a position of confronting Kim in the context of a Kerry-proposed bilateral framework, things could get very ugly. It's eminently preferable to have a "friend and comrade" of Kim's like Xu Caihou play that role.

And there's a broader strategic issue Kerry either willfully ignores or is ignorant of. At least since the October 2002 Jiang - Bush summit, the US and China have enjoyed excellent bilateral relations, which serve both nations well. In significant part, the goodwill that now exists has been built as the three six-way talks developed and proceeded. China feels reassured that the US is prepared to accord it a measure of trust in securing the peace in East Asia. For its help with North Korea, the US has reciprocated by acknowledging the "one China" doctrine and seriously cautioned Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian against any moves toward independence and in violation of the status quo. On the economic front, China and the US are fast becoming each others' most important partners. Occasional tiffs over exchange rates and trade frictions have been pragmatically resolved or contained. Kerry, by contrast, playing to US trade union audiences, has called China's currency regime "predatory". A Kerry administration, whether in regard to security or economic policy, could unravel a carefully knit strategic partnership Clinton merely talked about, but Bush has promoted in practical terms.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Oct 5, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Bush-Kerry debate: Both wrong on N Korea 
 (Oct 5, '04)

Nuke talks likely stalled until '05 (Oct 2, '04)

Seoul should call Pyongyang's bluff (Sept 25, '04)

Pyongyang seizes on Seoul's nuke dabbling (Sept 14, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong