Asia Program

Events

So Far, So Good -- But Now Comes the Tough Part: North Korean Experts Warn of the Difficulties Ahead

October 14, 1999 // 12:00am

Robert M. Hathaway

At an off-the-record luncheon to mark the fifth anniversary of the 1994 U.S.-North Korea nuclear agreement, three senior North Korea watchers and policy analysts gave the accord a mixed but basically positive evaluation, but warned against assuming the "North Korea problem" would be resolved any time soon.

Leading the lunchtime session -- jointly hosted by two Woodrow Wilson Center programs, the Asia Program and the Nonproliferation Forum -- were Kurt M. Campbell, deputy assistant secretary of defense; Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Patrick Cronin, director of research and studies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. All longtime North Korean analysts, these three speakers were joined in the workshop by approximately thirty Washington-based Korean specialists, including a number who are among the few Americans to have spent time in reclusive North Korea in recent years.

As one speaker noted, the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework was a "necessary but not sufficient" agreement to meet the crisis created in 1993-94 by North Korea's apparent determination to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal. Virtually all workshop participants emphasized, however, that the pact was not designed to deal with the range of contentious North Korea-related issues facing decision makers today. New mechanisms for coordinating and conducting bilateral and multilateral diplomacy will be required if relations with Pyongyang are to be successfully managed in the coming years.

All three principal speakers gave the 1994 accord credit for preventing North Korea from acquiring sizable stocks of plutonium that could be turned into bombs. Moreover, all three marveled at the high degree of political and security cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea that the Agreed Framework has facilitated.

Nonetheless, the obstacles in the way of stability on the Korean peninsula and throughout the region loomed large in the minds of workshop participants. Among the potential difficulties highlighted during the discussion were:

* the high probability that North Korea will conclude that the lifting of U.S. sanctions will not bring the economic benefits it had hoped for, and the absence of many other U.S. economic and diplomatic carrots with which to induce acceptable North Korean behavior;
* North Korea's production and export (two different but equally serious problems) of ballistic missiles;
* the continued presence of a large North Korean conventional military threat to South Korea;
* a Republican-led U.S. Congress equally suspicious of North Korea and the Clinton administration;
* recent news reports alleging the massacre of Korean civilians by U.S. military personnel in the early months of the Korean War;
* lack of knowledge about the internal situation in and political dynamics of North Korea;
* the unwillingness of the Clinton White House to appoint a senior figure to oversee all facets of Washington's North Korea policy.

Coming on the heels of the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the recent newspaper articles presenting credible accounts of Korean War atrocities committed against Korean civilians by U.S. military personnel, this session highlighted the difficulties of managing tensions on the Korean peninsula, creating a stable East Asia friendly to U.S. interests, and fashioning an effective global nonproliferation regime.

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