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Romberg: Burden on U.S. to Revive Nuclear Talks with North Korea

Interviewee: Alan D. Romberg, Senior Associate and Director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 10, 2006

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Alan D. Romberg, a leading expert on Asia, says that in the aftermath of North Korea’s announced nuclear test, and with China and North Korea “angry” at each other, it falls to the United States to try to get six-party negotiations resumed. “It’s going to rest on the United States to decide whether we’re going to make an effort to bring the North back to the table with the same kind of principled proposals we have made, without obviously yielding to nuclear blackmail on the one hand or being so rigid that there is no prospect of success,” he says.

Romberg, a former high State Department official, does not rule out a sudden decision by North Korea to come back to the negotiating table, having shown its “nuclear hand.”

Now that North Korea says it detonated a nuclear explosion, there is great concern around the world and the Security Council is gripped with the issue. U.S. policy right now seems very confrontational toward North Korea. How do you see this evolving and how do you think it should evolve?

I think it’s very clear that the Bush administration will not only push for international sanctions in the Security Council but will go ahead with a variety of sanctions that have been contemplated for some time. The first of those would be to re-impose sanctions which were suspended under the Clinton administration when we were making progress with North Korea. The Bush administration has signaled for some time that they wanted to move ahead with those, but that was delayed when South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun came here and it actually looked in the wake of his visit as though there might be a further delay in sanctions to give a chance for some other measures to bring the North back to the Six-Party talks in Beijing.

That was just last month, right?

Yes. But now there’s no question in my mind that those sanctions will be re-imposed and there may be other things. There is a discussion, for example, of inspecting all ships coming out of North Korea. This raises the specter of real confrontation and I doubt very much that China for instance will go along with that even though China is extremely angry at what the North has done. But that kind of activity could trigger a real military confrontation. That prospect is clearly going to displease China and make it concerned that the situation will spin out of control.

So we’ll have to see where the U.S. goes with that idea. I would think that without UN blessing there might be some hesitancy by the United States to undertake such action. South Korea is also now going to have to review its entire approach to the North but will also, in my judgment, be hesitant to endorse that kind of approach. So the U.S. will go ahead with some sanctions. We’ve already seen the draft points that the U.S. would like to include. It isn’t very clear how those kinds of sanctions are in fact going to improve the situation, however.

Specifically, which of these sanctions are you talking about?

I think that freezing or a threat to freeze North Korean-related bank accounts has had a very widespread effect in closing down the North’s access to international finance. And I think one of the things the administration will do is to proceed to broaden the application of that kind of sanction. The United States in the press yesterday and today made clear that it believes that any money is fungible and thus can be diverted from a presumably legitimate purpose to WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs and so we can’t have any dealing financially with North Korea on anything.

That is precisely the kind of sanction that the North said had to be lifted before it would come back to the table and it isn’t clear to me that proceeding to formalize a broader application of that sanction is going to have any effect in terms of negotiations. Now, it may be that the administration believes it is not going to get anywhere with negotiations—even though we say we’re willing to—and so we’re just going to squeeze for a while. I think that the odds are at this point that the North doesn’t see any benefit of coming back to the table, which may be one reason they thought that this was the right time to go ahead with a nuclear test. It’s probably also the case that the administration at least at the senior-most levels shares that view.

Are there not high-level people in favor of negotiations?

There are obviously people who have felt and, I would guess, continue to feel that negotiations could have an effect and could work in terms of even now constraining the North’s program and could at least test whether North Korea’s serious about rolling it back. The United States, however, has not tested that in the last six years and I think that it’s fair to say that one of the results can be judged to be where we are today.

We don’t know if we had actually been more willing to talk with the North and to have had a more forward leaning policy that it would have produced any better results. We don’t know because we really didn’t try. One thing I would add to this is that I don’t rule out at all the possibility that the North will now say, “Okay, we have shown you how strong we are and therefore we propose that we go back to the table and discuss the September 19, 2005 statement, [which seemed to signal an agreement in principle for resolving the crisis] and of course at the same time, the lifting of sanctions.”

What’s hard to see our way through at this point is that because the Chinese are so angry with North Korea—and I have to believe that North Korea is so angry with China—that it’s basically on the shoulders of the United States as to whether that is going to be feasible. It’s going to rest on the United States to decide whether we’re going to make an effort to bring the North back to the table with the same kind of principled proposals we have made, without obviously yielding to nuclear blackmail on the one hand or being so rigid that there is no prospect of success.

Let’s go back to that September 19 agreement. That agreement was a very general one of principles, but it did seem to have things in it that North Korea would have wanted like a light water reactor if it really truly needed nuclear power for energy.

I think what it had in it that the North wanted were the things that the Agreed Framework agreement of 1994 with Washington had in it that the North wanted—normalization of relations specifically with the United States but also with the broader international community, security assurances of various sorts so that they didn’t think they were facing the prospect of being pushed off the edge, and access to economic assistance in a way that did not force them to totally revamp their system. The light water reactor is an issue which I think has much more symbolism to the North than is realistic.

As you recall at the time of the September 19 statement the United States and the others all said of course when the statement refers to discussing this possibility of giving North Korea a light water reactor at “an appropriate time,” that meant that the North had come back in compliance with IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] obligations, had rejoined the IAEA and rejoined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The North said then, in effect, “in your face guys.” North Korea said “we know when an appropriate time is—the appropriate time is now and not only that but the light water reactor should be supplied not just by anybody but by the United States.” So it was a reaction to how the United States handled the inclusion of reference to the LWR in the statement. I agree with Christopher Hill [the U.S. negotiator] when he says that it provided a road map. It was going to be in any case a tough job to then go back and make something real of those principles, but I think they pointed in a direction which was important to all the parties at the table, including the fact that the North committed itself to total denuclearization.

There are have been rumors that elements in the Bush Administration tried to sabotage the September 19 agreement by imposing a tough sanctions program on banks accused of laundering counterfeit North Korean funds. What’s your view on that?

I think the timing actually is a little different.

The counterfeiting came first, I know.

Yes, and I don’t know as a matter of “fact” that the administration thought it was really going to have the effect that the banking sanctions have apparently had and one can see over the course of the succeeding months that there was some relishing of that effect and a desire grew to expand those measures. I don’t think there’s any doubt that there has been a sharp difference of view within the administration about how to proceed but the guy who matters who sits in the Oval Office has, I think, been pretty consistent in taking a very hard line view of the North and he obviously gave the green light to going ahead with the statement of principles. It does seem to be that following the September 19 statement and the North Korean reaction on the LWR’s, and the so-called success of the sanctions moves that he’s also approved continuing a squeeze of the North while at the same time we’re saying, “Well, if you come back to the Six-Party talks we can talk about anything.”

Coming back to China, which you say is very angry with North Korea. Why don’t the Chinese just simply cut off some of their aid?

First of all, I think they will probably cut back on some things and that shouldn’t surprise us, but their concern of chaos on their border including the prospect of a large refugee flow remains real. They’re concerned that there could be chaos in which various factions within North Korea might call on different parts of the international community to bail them out, therefore leading to actual conflict on the peninsula. The threat of war and chaos I think still rates probably in terms of China’s strategic interests higher than the nuclear issue even though I hasten to say that I think the Chinese definitely are against the North having a nuclear capability and I think they warned them not to conduct a nuclear test. The fact that the North went ahead with such a test anyway I think is among the things which has most angered China and that probably will lead not only to China going along with non-military sanctions in the Security Council but may be doing some things on their own that would be designed to send a message to Pyongyang that it’s not nice to ignore China when it has been so supportive in the past.

And of course Japan with a new prime minister is quite angry right now too.

They are angry and one has to keep in mind that as with the missiles, Japan is among the most likely targets of any use of nuclear weapons by North Korea. I don’t think North Korea contemplates using nuclear weapons in any offensive sense because I think that they know that if they were to do that just as if they were to in fact launch a conventional attack on South Korea, for example, that the result would the elimination of North Korea as a political entity.

I don’t think that the war that would result would be a partial war. I think it would be a war to end the North Korean regime. But at the same time I think that while Japan is already starting to proceed with harsher sanctions even than before, I think that cooperation with Beijing and with Seoul as well as with Washington is very much in Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s interest and in a way I think that the timing of the test plays to his advantage in his effort to re-knit relations with both of his near neighbors.

What about U.S. policy?

Some people are being quoted in the administration as saying that North Korea is unpredictable, etc. I just don’t think that that’s largely true. The way the United States has dealt with North Korea, or more aptly not dealt with North Korea over the past six years I think has contributed considerably to where we are at this very moment and I think it was predictable that without a reason to hold back the North would find it in its interest to go ahead with this nuclear program including to the point of testing.

Second, there have been some suggestions that somehow this test has altered the balance in Northeast Asia. I don’t agree with that either. Setting aside the question of whether the test was a dud or not, the fact is that the basic power relationships in the region remain as they were. I am pretty sure that the North is not suicidal and therefore does not have the intention to use nuclear weapons in an offensive sense.

Many people have said that the whole problem is that if the United States had agreed to continue direct talks with North Korea started by the Clinton administration none of this would have happened. Do you agree with that?

I wouldn’t totally buy into that. I think that the notion that we won’t talk to the North except in the context of the Six-Party talks is understandable but not necessarily very helpful, but I don’t think that one can simply point to that and say that’s the problem. I think it is more the steps the United States has taken such as the banking measures and then taken the position that we can’t possibly talk about this because they’re technical issues and we’re only defending our economy. Then in the same breath, U.S. officials turn around and say “well, if they come back to Six-Party talks we can talk about everything including the sanctions.” And I think that if you put yourself in the North Koreans’ shoes what you see is the United States seeking to squeeze them back to the table.

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