Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Futility of the 6PT

As I am often prone to do in my nerdiness, Thursday morning I found myself watching CSPAN. The fact that I actually punched in the numbers on the remote rather than just stumbled across it on a channel-surfing spree reveals a little more than I would like, but that's beside the point. What got my attention once I got to channel 81 was the handsome moustache and "I'm right, you're an idiot" tone of everyone's favorite former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. What kept my attention was the topic of the panel he was participating in, "A Fair Deal for North Korea?." (There is audio and video of the event on the right side of the page; the video seemed to have issues but the audio worked very well)

AEI hosted this panel featuring Amb. Bolton, along with Nick Eberstadt and Dan Bloumenthal, to discuss (and for the most part disparage) the merits, or lack there of, of negotiating with North Korea. This issue will probably come up in class in a few weeks when we focus on North Korea, but I think that a preview never hurt anyone.

Amb. Bolton shaped the fundamental question at the heart of the debate. "Do you believe that North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program?" If yes, then party on, Wayne, but if not, then the process is futile and potentially dangerous, as it allows Pyongyang to emerge from the corner that it has been backed into, and risks direct use of the weapons or transfer of the weapons to a terrorist group or criminal organization.

Bolton and Eberstadt both discuss how historically North Korea has consistently proven itself to be unreliable in negotiation, and to be committed to and politically dependent on a nuclear program for its survival (There is a great piece by Victor Cha in NBR's Strategic Asia 2004-2005; I've linked it here if you have the time to read it; Cha dubs Pyongyang's strategy as one of "receive (aid) and retain (nukes)" ). These factors, and the fact that the North is likely to miss the 60 day deadline this week, suggest that negotiations are a misguided strategy and do not serve U.S. interests. Bolton also notes that Yongbyon is potentially on its last legs, making it not all that considerable of a concession on Pyongyang's part. Finally, Bloumenthal adds some interesting points about how this negotiation process has hurt the U.S.-Japan alliance, what he believes should be Washington's strategic priority in East Asia, and also minimizes the importance of North Korean denuclearization. These elements further compromise American strategic interests in the region.

The issues raised in this panel bring up a lot of important questions, most notably the central question framed by Amb. Bolton. If you accept that North Korea sticks to a policy of "receive and retain," does the Kim regime really have any benefit to gain from long term cooperation with the int'l community and total denuclearization? If not, why would it voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program? On another note, is Pyongyang's nuclear test really that big of a deal? Was it the result of a "failure of U.S. policy"?

I personally find it hard to believe that the North would ever directly use a nuclear weapon against another state as the result would likely be the complete decimation of the country and the toppling of the Kim regime. I also find it hard to believe that weapons would be trafficked out of North Korea. For one thing, if I'm not mistaken, the North only has a handful of warheads (5 or 6?)and it needs all the help it can get from where I'm sitting. For another, this isn't the frontier regions of Pakistan we're talking about here. East Asia and the countries in it strike me as generally secure and well-policed areas. I'm skeptical that a nuclear weapon could be successfully smuggled out of the country, especially under conditions of enhanced scrutiny in the post-test world. At the same time, East Asia is notorious for human trafficking and drug trafficking problems, and the transfer of technology or nuclear know-how is not as far-fetched.

That being said, I firmly believe negotiations are necessary. It's all well and good to continue to push Pyongyang into a corner, but eventually you reach an equilibrium and can squeeze no more. I don't think that the top dogs in the North would be threatened by such a strategy. The humanitarian and social side-effects would be horrific, and the strategic pay-off would ultimately be nil.

Negotiations begin a process that goes far beyond simple denuclearization and eventually addresses the root causes of the issue, opening the door for peace and reconciliation on the Peninsula and in the region. This round of negotiations differs from previous experiences in that China has taken a much more active role since Pyongyang's nuclear test. This presence at the table and influence on Pyongyang could prove to be a deciding factor in the outcome of the 6PT.
In addition, the hold-up with the negotiations now does not strike me as North Korea being nit-picky or giving everyone the run-around. The other players have yet to live up to their end of the bargain, so why should the North?

I think I've written enough for one post. Congrats if you had the attention span to get all the way through.


Sayaka said...

Did anyone go to Jervis's talk on deterrence the other day? I showed up late so I might have missed many things he said, but from the part I heard, as opposed to Bolton, Jervis was very critical of the US's reluctance to negotiate with North Korea, saying "is there anything the US cannot give but North Korea wants? Foods? Security guarantee?"

Eric said...

Your post is very interesting Will. I agree with you that North Korea is unlikely to use a nuclear weapon, for fear of the inevitabre destruction they would face. However, I disagree with the notion that North Korea cannot/will not sell nuclear weapons or technical expertise.

North Korea has a long history of being an arms proliferator and supplier to nations on our list of "bad guys". If North Korea retains the indigenous capability to develop and produce nuclear weapons, it would be a calculated risk to sell them. And for enough money, I believe they would. The threat of the Bush Administration that should a weapon from North Korea be used by a state or non-state group, the consequences will fall on North Korea as well seems rather hollow to me (and certainly to the Kim regime I would think). Nuclear forensics could determine the likely origin of a weapon, but what then? Are we going to invade North Korea, or strategically knock out their production facilities? Bear in mind this could be 10-15 years in the future, when Iran might have nuclear weapons, Taiwan might be on the way to them, South Korea might be on the way to them, hell Japan might be on the way to them. The uncertainty factor is through the roof.

They could simply sell their technical expertise. It is not so far fetched that they would sell the services of a team of their rocket propulsion or weapons fabrication scientists - at a hefty price. All they would have to do is obtain diplomatic visas and send the scientists on their way. In that case North Korea avoids the stigma of having actually delivered an armable weapon or weapon component and instead has cover from culpability (until our hollow threat changes to "if you help them, we will bomb you as well").

In light of this, if US policymakers assume that the dire situation of internal stability (perhaps brought on by famine, or continued contact with Chinese in the border area) is what would push the Kim regime to being willing to sell either expertise or materiel, perhaps the purpose of the 6PT is not denuclearization, but preventing the regime instability - and that's why China is so interested in being involved. Perhaps we are proping KJI up, but what's to say we shouldn't be? South Korea and China both obviously want to see a soft landing - maybe its in our best interests to push for one as well.

Besides, other than Israel, what's the most likely target in the world for one of those rogue weapons?

Will Buck said...

I agree with you Eric. After posting my original entry, the financial incentives of selling nuclear weapons/technology would probably be a considerable motivation for Pyongyang.

I also agree that the purpose of the 6PT should not be simply denuclearization above all. The AEI panelists do not share this sentiment, and perhaps that influences their pessimism in some ways.