On Tuesday, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the abhorrent state run by Chairman Kim Jong Il, said it would restart its plutonium facilities and “never participate” in the six-party disarmament talks. Furthermore, it repudiated all agreements to disarm. The blast from Pyongyang was in reaction to Monday’s statement of the president of the Security Council condemning the April 5 launch of a North Korean missile.
Pyongyang’s announcement will undoubtedly shake State Department officials and Obama staffers, but Americans made of sterner stuff will welcome the news. As an initial matter, North Korea’s only plutonium reactor, located in Yongbyon, was supplied by the Soviets in the middle of the 1960s. It is well past its useful life. Let the North Koreans restart it if they dare. There is, after all, nothing so delegitimizing as a self-inflicted mushroom cloud, as Chernobyl taught us more than two decades ago. We were generous — perhaps foolish — to have paid Mr. Kim to close Yongbyon down in the first place. And do you think the nearby Chinese are going to allow Kim to create radioactive clouds that will drift toward Beijing?
Of course, Pyongyang can build new reactors as it announced some time ago. Yet Kim has not made much progress, largely because he does not have the resources to continue their construction. North Korea, now in the fourth year of a downturn, has a gross domestic product so small — about $20 billion — that some buildings in Manhattan boast a larger economy. So let’s see if the Kimster can begin building sophisticated reactors.
And what about Pyongyang’s threat to permanently shun Beijing’s six-party talks? That promise sounds hollow. But let’s assume, for the moment, that the North Koreans mean what they say. I say the end of the negotiations is a good thing. The discussions, which began in August 2003, made relatively quick progress at first. In September 2005, the six nations — China, North Korea, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States — agreed to a statement of principles. Pyongyang, for its part, committed itself to giving up “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and pledged “at an early date” to rejoin the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and submit to international inspections.
The negotiations predictably broke down over verification of Pyongyang’s promises. To get things back on track, the Bush administration, in one of the most humiliating incidents in the annals of American diplomacy, violated American law in 2007 by transferring back to the North Koreans $25 million in dirty money that had been previously frozen in a Macau bank. By now, it is clear that Kim, in the absence of the threat of force or extreme pressure, will never agree to strict inspections of his nuclear facilities.
In the absence of verification, Pyongyang’s promises are worthless. Actually, they have been worse than worthless because they have inhibited Washington from thinking of more effective strategies for disarming the militant state. The United States has been directly talking with North Korea since June 1993. Negotiations since then have been bilateral and multilateral, formal and informal. They have been conducted in the capitals of the participants and in neutral settings. Every conceivable format has been tried at least once. Talks have been everything but successful.
Almost everyone says that diplomacy carries no cost. Yet that is not true. North Korea did not have the bomb in June 1993. Today it does, and its missile program is far more advanced. In short, negotiations have given dangerous despots — Kim Jong Il and his now-departed dad, Kim Il Sung — what they needed most in order to arm themselves: time.
North Korea, despite its statement yesterday, did not end its participation in the nuclear talks and turn its back on agreements because of the Security Council’s weak criticism. Kim Jong Il, unfortunately, inherited the most militarized nation on earth — and then further elevated the position of the army with his songun, or “military first,” policy. North Korea is unique among one-party states in that the ruling Korean Workers’ Party is subordinate to another institution in society. Kim relied on the generals to consolidate his position after the death of his dad in 1994. Now, he is once again dependent on the top brass as he is in ill-health — recovering from one or more strokes last August — and needs its support for his plans to pass power to one of his sons.
North Korea has been trying to weaponize the atom since at least the early 1980s and maybe even as early as the mid-1960s. The generals are not going to give up their most destructive weapon just because Foreign Ministry officials have signed pieces of paper with foreigners. We would like to think we live in a rational age where disputes can be settled by conversation in large rooms. Nonetheless, hostile regimes do not always share our vision of international relations.
Today, there have been the predictable calls for going back to the bargaining table. For example, Harvard’s Hui Zhang contends that we must negotiate because, among other reasons, the North Koreans might sell fissile material or nukes to other countries. Yet while we were talking in Beijing in the six-party context, Pyongyang was transferring nuclear technology to Iran and Syria. The proliferation threat posed by Kim Jong Il is ongoing — and ignored in Washington by both the Obama administration and its predecessor.
So let’s take the North Koreans at their word, walk away from the talks, and strangle their horrible regime. It would be better to do this before Chairman Kim — or some renegade colonel — fires a nuclear-tipped missile in our direction. Or helps the Iranians to do the same.