Next Steps on North Korea: Options Beyond Sanctions

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Discussion with Alan D. Romberg, Michael Swaine, and Randall Schriver

On October 12, 2006, the Henry L. Stimson Center partnered with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) to hold a discussion on the road ahead in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test. The event, entitled “Next Steps on North Korea: Options Beyond Sanctions” was held at CEIP and featured Michael Swaine, Senior Associate at CEIP, Randall Schriver, a founding partner of Armitage International LLC and Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Alan Romberg, Senior Associate and Director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

In his opening remarks, Michael Swaine set the parameters of the discussion and focused on four major questions following the nuclear test announcement. First, can the five parties that have been involved with North Korea in the Six Party talks on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula-the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China-agree on a plan of action in moving forward that would dissuade others who currently or in the future might contemplate the acquisition of nuclear weapons, such as Iran, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, from pursuing their own nuclear programs? Second, can the five parties agree on a set of objectives, beyond punishment of North Korea, that would sufficiently address the issue of denuclearization of the peninsula and constrain the North from proliferating its nuclear material? Third, can the parties agree on a set of means for attaining their objectives? And last, can the five parties agree upon a set of actions that would prevent North Korea from escalating the situation beyond a single test?

Swaine highlighted each party’s initial reactions to North Korea’s announcement. He noted that the United States has been sending mixed signals in response to the test. Statements by the Bush administration make unclear whether the true “red line�” is drawn at North Korean nuclearization or at proliferation of weapons, weapons technology or fissile material. U.S. calls for sanctions and activation of Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter have been resisted by China which, despite strongly condemning North Korea actions, remains opposed to the use of force in addressing the North Korean situation. South Korea continues contemplating dilution of its sunshine policy, and Japan has supported strong sanctions, while reaffirming its commitment to a non-nuclear policy. North Korea has indicated its willingness to resume some type of talks but has stated that it will continue to regard any use of sanctions as an act of war.

Alan Romberg focused his remarks on U.S. policies toward North Korea, emphasizing specifically the role of diplomacy in resolving the current situation. Romberg believes the Bush administration’s goal of comprehensive, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament (CVID) is correct, but adds that American diplomacy must be adjusted and restructured to meet the objective, as the current approach has failed.

In looking at the next steps, Romberg affirmed that the priority is to prevent proliferation but believed that bolstering the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to include high-seas interdiction and inspection of ships going to and from North Korea is potentially dangerous and unlikely to garner broad international support. Any resolution to the Korean crisis must contain some meaningful appeal to the DPRK. Expectations that the North will cave under increased pressure discounts substantial evidence showing that North Korea has been able to cope under extreme pressures and constraints in the past. Romberg contended that attaining unanimity in the Security Council is crucial, and if the United States is to succeed in passing a measure acceptable to the other parties, it will have to adjust the degree of severity it wishes to see in the resolution.

The current crisis could prove to be an opportunity for America to strengthen its alliances with Japan and Korea, and perhaps see improvements in Japanese-Korean and Sino-Japanese relations, as well. However, Romberg noted, there are other indications that the U.S. could places pressure on Seoul to cut off its investment in Kaesong, which would likely cause tension in the relationship.

Randy Schriver spoke about the effects of the North Korean test on the East Asian strategic landscape, current and near-term reactions by the five parties, and policy recommendations for the United States. He stated that while the nuclear test constituted a “provocative act,” it did not alter the strategic landscape, as U.S. analysts and policymakers have already been working for over a decade under the assumption that North Korea had a nuclear capability.

However, three developments would serve to change the strategic landscape: 1) A deliberate act on the part of North Korea to proliferate its nuclear material; 2) A decision by a state otherwise not inclined to pursue nuclear weapons to change course and pursue nuclear programs as a result of the test; or 3) A decision by a state already inclined to pursue nuclear weapons to use North Korea’s test as a basis for proceeding with its nuclear acquisition. Preventing these three scenarios from transpiring should be the focus of efforts now, rather than coping with the act of North Korea’s nuclear test, itself.

Schriver commended the performance of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the course of the crisis, noting particularly Japan’s decisions to focus on the region and not to pursue nuclear weapons, its sensible unilateral sanctions against North Korea, and work with others in the UN Security Council in coming up with an appropriate response. Schriver also believed that U.S. policies following the test have been sound. Continuing to extend invitations back to Six Party talks and offering North Korea a way out have been smart moves. Like Romberg, Schriver believes the crisis can serve as an opportunity to strengthen U.S. relationships with Japan and South Korea, and the United States should place faith and confidence in China as a partner in the process.

In looking at policy for the near future, Schriver argued that the United States needs to establish greater clarity in its position, namely on where it draws the red lines and whether Washington wants regime change or regime behavior change. Attaining a timely UN resolution is more important than a perfect UN resolution, and the international community must demonstrate a prompt response that reflects consensus among the powers involved. Any tenable resolution to the situation must include continued talks with North Korea and an “off-ramp” for the DPRK. While the danger of the situation, Schriver believed, is limited with regard to the possibility of other East Asian governments acquiring nuclear capabilities, North Korean proliferation and the effect this crisis may have on Iran remain serious concerns.

In his concluding remarks, Michael Swaine questioned the effect the North Korean crisis will have on relations between China and the United States, who have had differences over their approaches to the Peninsula in the past. The future, Swaine predicted, will likely witness a de facto acceptance of a nuclear North Korea. Although there will emerge a minimal level of agreement among the five parties emphasizing punishment of North Korea in the initial phases and efforts to return to some kind of dialogue with the North, little progress will likely be made.


[1] The UN resolution adopted two days later referred to Chapter 7, but specifically did not endorse military action.


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