Desperate for a Deal
Michael Schiffer
Far Eastern Economic Review
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill is reportedly on the verge of clinching a deal to get a North Korean declaration on its plutonium programs, albeit one likely to fall short of a "full and complete" accounting of all of Pyongyang's nuclear activities. Mr. Hill, the chief U.S. envoy on North Korea, met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Tokyo this week then traveled to Beijing to jumpstart the Six-Party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament and push for acceptance of the declaration.

At this stage, however, a plutonium declaration, important as it is, needs to be placed in context as simply one step in an "action-for-action" progression within the Six-Party process. Overselling it or seeking to leverage it as a "breakthrough" runs the risk of offering de facto membership in the nuclear club to one of the world’s most odious regimes.

The U.S. and its partners in the Six-Party talks would to do well to remember that under Kim Jong Il North Korea has withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, quadrupled its plutonium stockpile in the past seven years, tested a nuclear device and long-range missiles, and, possibly, exported nuclear technology to Syria and others.

North Korea thus far seems to have no intention of giving up its weapons as a precondition for normalization, as the Six-Party process is supposed to have it. In Washington, there can be little question that a badly structured deal now, simply for the sake of a deal, poses a far greater risk than simply slowing down to hand things over to the next administration.

U.S. presidential transitions can prove perilous even for issues where there is broad-based bipartisan consensus, let alone for an issue as contentious as how to deal with North Korea. The stakes are simply too high to allow a period of inattention or incoherence, or for an administration divided against itself or out of sync with its partners in the region to derail the Six-Party process—which, if done right, can still lead to success in containing and rolling back North Korea's nuclear program.

The U.S. needs to adopt a strategy that helps us and our allies achieve our objectives, not by turning back the clock to Bush administration failures, but by leading in the region and working with our allies and China within the Six Party framework to move one step at a time, action for action.

In the U.S. Congress, there is considerable angst over the prospect of a deal that contains less than the "full and complete" plutonium accounting the Bush administration had earlier advertised, while at the same time finessing allegations about the North's uranium program and its proliferation activities. It seems likely that legislative consideration of waivers (for the terrorism list) or any possible changes in the law on other sanctions relief sought by the Bush administration will face a rough road.

A pause that allows further confidence building and a fuller testing of North Korea's intentions might also provide the administration a way to make a more effective case to a skeptical U.S Congress than the one they currently appear to have.

It seems clear, for example, that any "declaration" based solely on the 18,000 pages of operating records of the Yongbyon nuclear complex is going to be insufficient. The documents are a good start, but need to be accompanied with a robust verification regime that includes interviews, samples and other technical measures. It's helpful to know what happened at Yongbyon, but the status and disposition of already reprocessed fissile material and weapons must remain our focus.

We can afford to be flexible about the timing and sequencing, but need to be absolutely clear that there is no flexibility in our commitment to the bottom line of the deal: the complete, verifiable elimination of the North's nuclear weapons programs and a return to the NPT in exchange for normalization and a host of other political, economic and security incentives.

This will require the application of tough-minded and patient diplomacy by the next U.S. administration. Renewed emphasis needs to be placed on alliance coordination and multilateral diplomacy to help forge U.S.-Japanese-South Korean alignment, as well as greater coordination between the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.

There has been increasing talk of movement forward on a six-party Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism, one of the "phase three" results that the Six-Party process is aiming for. It would be best for the U.S. to kick off a five-party mechanism, with a sixth chair left open for North Korea once its willing to meet its obligations and able to live up to the principles, norms and values that should animate such a regional mechanism.

In its waning months the Bush administration faces a clear choice regarding its North Korea policy: Does it want to pass on to its successor an incipient crisis on the Korean Peninsula or leave as its legacy a process that can serve as the basis for the U.S. and its allies to limit the damage of North Korea's nuclear program and lock into place an approach that will lead to sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Mr. Schiffer is a program officer in policy analysis and dialogue at the Stanley Foundation, a nonpartisan, private foundation that focuses on peace and security issues and advocates principled multilateralism (

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.