The United States might have to live with North Korea's possession of a small nuclear arsenal, U.S. expert Selig Harrison said yesterday in a Washington Post commentary (see GSN, Feb. 17).
"If the United States can deal with major nuclear weapons states such as China and Russia, it can tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea that may or may not actually have the weapons arsenal it claims," Harrison, Asia program chief at the Center for International Policy, wrote following a trip last month to Pyongyang.
Washington and four other nations have spent years trying to persuade Pyongyang to accept dismantlement of its nuclear sector. The effort has produced results, notably a 2007 denuclearization agreement and the subsequent disablement of several key plants at the plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear complex, but stalled again in late 2008 over questions of verifying the regime's atomic work.
Harrison said he devised a theoretical "grand bargain" in which North Korea would relinquish its acknowledged 68-pound stockpile of plutonium, which is enough for four or five weapons. In return, Washington would normalize diplomatic ties and complete a pact to end the Korean War, among other measures.
"The North's rebuff was categorical and explicit," he stated. "Its declared plutonium has 'already been weaponized,' I was told repeatedly during 10 hours of discussions. Pyongyang is ready to rule out the development of additional nuclear weapons in future negotiations, but when, and whether, it will give up its existing arsenal depends on how relations with Washington evolve."
A senior North Korean military official suggested that "weaponized" indicated missile warhead development, Harrison stated.
The North's position appears directly connected to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's decision to give up day-to-day management of the government following his reported stroke in August. The hard-line National Defense Commission is now effectively in charge of national security matters, Harrison said.
The current situation leaves Washington with two options -- "benign neglect and limiting the North's arsenal to four or five weapons," Harrison stated.
The first option would have the United States put the nuclear diplomacy program on hold while also not taking action that encourage "regime change" in North Korea. While Pyongyang then could not grab any additional benefits through the denuclearization process, it might make "provocative moves" to ensure it still had Washington's attention, Harrison said.
"The strongest argument for this approach is that the United States has nothing to fear from a nuclear North Korea. Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons for defensive reasons, to counter a feared U.S. pre-emptive strike, and U.S. nuclear capabilities in the Pacific will deter any potential nuclear threat from the North," according to Harrison.
Under the second option, the goal of the six-party talks would be amended to ensuring that Pyongyang does not produce additional nuclear weapons. That would require an agreement on dismantling the regime's sole operational nuclear reactor and making sure the North receives the remaining 200,000 tons of heavy fuel oil promised under the 2007 deal.
"Just in case Pyongyang has, in fact, learned to miniaturize nuclear warheads sufficiently to make long-range missiles, the Obama administration should couple a resumption of denuclearization negotiations with a revival of the promising missile limitation negotiations that the Clinton administration was about to conclude when it left office," Harrison stated (Selig Harrison, Washington Post, Feb. 17).
U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said yesterday that the goal of the six-nation talks -- encompassing China, Japan, Russia, the United States and both Koreas -- remains full nuclear disarmament in the North, Voice of America reported.
"Any move to change the six-party process, or not to live up to the commitments to the six-party talks, of course would be of concern," he said. "However, the North Koreans have agreed, have made commitments to the international community and particularly to the members of the six-party talks, to carry our certain functions, certain activities that will provide the actions-for-action moves that we will take. So they should focus on those commitments that they have made rather than statements that are not particularly helpful" (David Gollust, Voice of America, Feb. 17).