Wrong Path on North Korea

By Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The Bush administration is preparing to implement a new set of comprehensive sanctions against North Korea in response to its recent ballistic missile tests. This would be a grave mistake, likely to lift the already dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula to a new level of tension. Imposing such sanctions at this time could bring about more of the very actions the United States opposes. They should be reconsidered before lasting damage is done.

U.S. allies and friends in Northeast Asia, including South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, have been notified of the impending actions. These governments have participated along with Washington in the stalled regional talks with North Korea aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program. With the possible exception of Japan, these friendly governments believe that a major new drive to further isolate the Pyongyang regime would be a move in the wrong direction.

The only path to success with North Korea is negotiation, which President Bush and others have endorsed on many occasions. What is needed is sustained engagement to persuade Pyongyang to return to the regional talks and cease its confrontational actions -- not new sanctions that will make such a course even more difficult.

Pyongyang's ballistic missile tests of July 4 were a provocative mistake that led to unanimous condemnation by the U.N. Security Council and sharp cutbacks in aid from South Korea. The tests especially angered China because of Kim Jong Il's refusal to accept a high-level envoy who was to express China's unhappiness about them. Beijing took the remarkable step of voting to condemn its fraternal neighbor. It slowed down but did not stop its crucial food and energy assistance for fear of creating instability on its border. China is unsympathetic to further U.S. sanctions at this time and most unlikely to follow suit.

Recent U.S. financial sanctions based on North Korea's money-laundering and counterfeiting of U.S. currency have been painful for Pyongyang's free-spending leadership. But neither these sanctions nor the impending comprehensive sanctions are likely to lead to the demise of the 60-year-old North Korean regime or to a positive shift away from its militaristic actions. Instead, the predictable result of new sanctions now is new steps by Pyongyang to prove it will not be intimidated: additional tests of ballistic missiles or an underground nuclear explosion to validate its declaration early last year that it is "a full-fledged nuclear weapons state."

In June 2005 Kim Jong Il told a South Korean emissary that his country possesses nuclear weapons but that it does not need to test them. Semi-official U.S. estimates are that Pyongyang has sufficient nuclear material for six to 12 nuclear weapons, though the status of bomb assembly is unknown. Should Kim's regime be spurred to test such a device, the repercussions of a successful test for the global drive against the spread of nuclear weapons would be great, with especially powerful political and military impact in Northeast Asia. Such an event might prompt extensive new arms programs, possibly including nuclear weapons programs, by South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Why, at such a time, choose sanctions, a policy option whose historical record is overwhelmingly one of failure? One possible reason is that sanctions give vent to the visceral hostility that senior Bush administration officials feel toward North Korea. Another is that sanctions could be a defense, however inadequate, against political charges that the administration has done little or nothing to slow North Korea's nuclear programs. But a sanctions-based policy ignores the damage it would do to those in North Korea seeking transformational change and greater openness. Some longtime foreign observers believe such trends are gathering force.

Some high in the Bush administration have argued that dangerous actions by North Korea are likely whether or not the United States undertakes new sanctions against Pyongyang. Perhaps so, but they are much more likely if, instead of carrot-and-stick negotiations, the administration withdraws all previous carrots and multiplies the sticks. In this case a U.S. administration will have to share the blame with North Korea if a new international crisis erupts.

Donald Gregg is a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and currently chairman of the Korea Society. Don Oberdorfer is a former diplomatic correspondent for The Post and currently chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.


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