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"Escaping North Korea's Nuclear Trap"
Comment by Nancy E. Soderberg in the New York Times


North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs, according to the C.I.A. It is probably building five or six more. At its meeting in Vienna today, the International Atomic Energy Agency will most likely refer the North Korean crisis to the United Nations Security Council. The last time the agency took such a step, in 1994, it led to a discussion of sanctions, which North Korea made clear then — and has made clear now — would constitute a declaration of war.

What has been the Bush administration's response? To date, its only consistent theme has been that this president will not negotiate a deal similar to the one President Bill Clinton negotiated in 1994. The Bush administration should look more closely at the history of negotiations with North Korea. President Bush may be surprised to learn that not even his own father was able to secure North Korean agreement on an accord to safeguard nuclear material without making major concessions — a fact that should help inoculate the president against accusations of "Clintonization."

The history of negotiation with North Korea is one in which the international community has repeatedly offered incentives to North Korea to rein in its nuclear programs. President George H. W. Bush's actions are part of that history. For instance, to encourage the North Koreans to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Soviet Union offered to build them four nuclear reactors in the late 1970's and early 1980's. While the reactors were never built, North Korea did join the treaty in 1985.

In 1989, the United States learned that North Korea might be processing nuclear material, thus violating the treaty. So President George H. W. Bush struck his own deal, although he never described it as a quid pro quo. In exchange for North Korea's agreeing to let the atomic energy agency monitor and inspect its nuclear facilities, he withdrew United States nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula, canceled the annual joint United States-South Korea military exercise and agreed to a high-level meeting with North Korean officials. Even though North Korea had demanded each of these steps, President Bush was right to agree to them.

In 1993, the Clinton administration discovered that the North Koreans were cheating on this deal, too. A year later, the administration signed what became known as the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear program was frozen and the international community provided North Korea with light-water reactors and fuel oil while the reactors were being built. North Korea violated the framework several years later by starting a uranium-based nuclear program. But it did not restart its plutonium program, which by now could have produced more than 50 nuclear weapons.

Today President Bush faces a crisis eerily similar to the one faced by President Clinton 1993 — and the one his own father faced four years earlier. If he has learned from history, Mr. Bush will negotiate directly with the North Koreans. In exchange for an end to both of North Korea's nuclear programs and tougher inspections, he will need to put new incentives on the table, like more food aid, a resumption of the light-water reactor construction, a nonaggression pact and the possibility of normal relations.

While difficult, this solution is better than the alternatives. As President Bush's predecessors learned, negotiation is the best option in each new North Korea crisis.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company



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"Escaping North Korea's Nuclear Trap"
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