Thursday, June 18, 2009

North Korea: Getting Back to Talks


Seoul/Brussels, 18 June 2009: Last Friday’s UN Security Council Resolution was an appropriately strong and united condemnation of North Korea’s second nuclear test and should be accompanied by strong containment measures and continued effective military deterrence to ensure that the situation does not further deteriorate. But keeping the door open for diplomacy is the only way the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula can be achieved.
North Korea: Getting Back to Talks,* the latest policy report from the International Crisis Group, examines the international community’s options in the wake of the test and the UNSC resolution. It is being published simultaneously with two background reports on the country’s military capabilities: North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs and North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs.
International condemnation is only the first step. Major efforts must be made to keep North Korea from expanding its arsenal and exporting know-how and materials to other countries and non-state actors. But if the nuclear problem is ever to be resolved, the international community also needs to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.
“Finding a way to resume talks on ending the nuclear program may appear to reward Pyongyang’s bad behaviour, but diplomacy is the least bad option”, says Gareth Evans, Crisis Group President. “The newly imposed sanctions are an essential message, but they will not solve the problem on their own. And military force – other than the guarantee of massive retaliation if North Korea should ever itself attack – is not an option at all”.
The U.S. remains the power with which Pyongyang is most willing to deal. If and when there appears a prospect, however uncertain, of engaging seriously, Washington should be prepared – after consulting with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea – to send a high-level special envoy to Pyongyang to discuss how to break the deadlock in the Six-Party Talks in a way that addresses the legitimate concerns and interests of both the international community and North Korea itself.
Pyongyang’s growing military capabilities are deeply troubling. In particular, as North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs describes, its weaponisation of warheads for medium-range missiles could possibly be further advanced than generally believed. The country’s missile arsenal is large: Pyongyang possibly has deployed over 600 short-range Scud variants that can strike South Korea, and as many as 320 medium-range Nodong missiles that can strike Japan. It probably now has between six and twelve nuclear weapons, or at least explosive devices. Experts are divided as to whether weaponisation technology has advanced far enough for any of these to be now use able as warheads, but even if they are not today, each year and each test bring that moment closer.
Pyongyang also possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons and is suspected of maintaining a biological weapons program, as North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs details. The Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) have been underway since August 2003, with the objective of ending the North’s nuclear ambitions, but there is no direct mechanism for dealing with its chemical weapons and possible biological weapons. While diplomatic energy should focus on the nuclear issue now, preliminary efforts should also be made to address Pyongyang’s other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
The precise motivations and intentions of North Korea’s leaders remain largely impenetrable, but the country’s military capabilities and capacity to cause real damage to the global non-proliferation effort are very significant, and the situation cannot be allowed to drift. China, as host of the Six-Party talks and with a degree of bilateral leverage, has an important role to play, but U.S. leadership will be critical.
“That means”, says Daniel Pinkston, Deputy Project Director of Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project, “a closer focus is needed on the issue in Washington, with a willingness to appoint a high level envoy and to work more closely and systematically with the North, however unpalatable that might seem given its utterly unacceptable recent behaviour”.

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