North Korea's Rising Urgency

By Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

It's been a year since the United States and its negotiating partners sat down with North Korea to discuss the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In the meantime Porter Goss, the director of central intelligence, has reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee (on March 17) that the number of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses has increased and that there is now "a range" of estimates above the one or two weapons that may have been produced in the early 1990s. His testimony implies that the intelligence community believes North Korea reprocessed the 8,000 fuel rods that had been kept under strict surveillance from 1994 to 2003 in accordance with the Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States. If so, this could mean that North Korea has many times the number of nuclear weapons it did before the Bush administration took office.

Thus, while the administration wrangled internally about whether to negotiate seriously with North Korea, Pyongyang was using the time to break out as a nuclear power. Indeed, in February the North Koreans declared that they have a "nuclear weapons arsenal."

This is something we should be in a hurry to reverse. Why is it that a war to address a nuclear weapons program that we now know had been dismantled can be pursued with great urgency by this administration while diplomacy to eliminate a growing arsenal in North Korea is carried on in an almost lackadaisical fashion, captive to pride and preconditions?

Why don't we hear the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say something like, "Today it is necessary to do everything possible in order not to allow North Korea to conduct tests," a declaration that was in fact uttered by the chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces. Yes, even the Russians -- the ones who first helped Pyongyang acquire nuclear technology -- are worried that North Korea will conduct a nuclear test. After that there will be no doubt it has become a nuclear power, and the regional nuclear arms race will be on.

North Korea has apparently used the past five years to become a nuclear weapons state. Meanwhile, its people remain impoverished, and there is no reason to believe that the regime would not sell nuclear material, technology and even weapons to any government, group or individual with hard cash, just as it does in selling ballistic missiles, drugs and other contraband.

This is about more than the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the fate of South Korea and U.S. troops stationed there, important as those things are. What is at stake is the stability of Northeast Asia and, arguably, the global economic and political order. The administration must get serious. It doesn't matter who is at the table as long as we and the North Koreans are there, and as long as both sides negotiate with seriousness and urgency. The administration must inject both into the process.

Seriousness is demonstrated by spelling out a package to the North Koreans that addresses their fundamental need for economic assistance. It is demonstrated by rhetorical restraint. Name-calling aimed at our opponent has only hampered diplomacy. Seriousness means sending a senior U.S. official to meet with Kim Jong Il. And the way to know whether we have been trying hard enough is to determine whether our Asian negotiating partners also think diplomacy has been exhausted.

Urgency is well demonstrated by putting forth a timetable. The administration should take a page from its aborted diplomacy toward Iraq. Just as we did with Iraq, we should negotiate with the Europeans, Asians and others to set international -- read United Nations -- deadlines for solving the crisis. The North Koreans have said they regard a U.N. sanctions resolution as tantamount to war, and Security Council members such as China are not likely to support sanctions unless there is a failure of diplomacy that the international community views as entirely North Korea's fault. Just as we worked with our allies to set deadlines for U.N. inspections in Iraq, we should seek a deadline for the next meeting with North Korea and another one for a final diplomatic agreement.

There is a precedent for this. According to former defense secretary William J. Perry (in a 1999 book) it was the threat of U.N. sanctions that led to negotiations concluding in the Agreed Framework, which froze the North Korean plutonium-based nuclear program for nine years.

Time is running out. Either the North Koreans will conduct a test (and transfer nuclear material, technology or weapons to our enemies) or the administration will finally act, using carrot and stick, to stop the clock and bring this crisis to a peaceful end before it's too late.

Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) serve on the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Levin as ranking Democrat.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company