The Magazine

Distrust But Verify

Caving in to North Korea.

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By AARON FRIEDBERG and DAN BLUMENTHAL
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Having turned down the pressure, however, neither the Bush administration nor, more likely, its successor will find it so easy to ratchet it back up. The tantalizing hope of an eventual breakthrough just around the corner, North Korea's skill in giving just enough to keep the game going, fear of endangering relations with China and South Korea, and the absence of a clear alternative strategy could keep Washington locked in for months, even years, to come, no matter how disappointing the results. In the meantime, North Korea will remain a nuclear weapons state, and the threat of further proliferation will remain very much alive.

There is another possibility that is, in some ways, even more worrisome. Suppose that the North Koreans decide to give up their plutonium stockpile and production facilities, and the United States decides, in effect, to accept their assurances on uranium and proliferation. Such a deal might look appealing, but it would entail significant risks. Despite its denials, the Kim regime may in fact have the elements of a covert uranium enrichment program hidden in tunnels and caves, and perhaps dispersed among several facilities in different parts of the country. Working independently, or perhaps in collaboration with other aspiring nuclear powers such as Iran, the North could perfect the technologies of enrichment and produce fissile material for its own weapons, for sale to others, or both. Indeed, it may already have done so.

Without the most rigorous inspection and verification regime there is no way to be certain what the North Koreans are up to. Nor, given what is known about Pyongyang's past interest in uranium enrichment, its ongoing relationships with Iran (and, as we now know, Syria), and its extensive record of concealment, deception, and duplicity, is there any reason to give it the benefit of the doubt.

All of which brings us to the heart of the problem. In dealing with North Korea the only sensible approach is to "distrust and verify." To date, however, North Korea has not agreed to, and the Bush administration has not yet insisted upon, any serious measures to verify the full scope and status of the North's nuclear weapons programs. Those measures that reportedly have been discussed-site visits, interviews with scientists, and further access to documents-apparently apply only to a limited number of facilities at Yongbyon. As useful as it may be to gain firsthand access to these, what is more important is to set up procedures that will permit full access to all known nuclear-related installations, as well as mechanisms for ensuring (or at least reducing the chances) that other, hidden facilities do not exist.

For this purpose, the best available instrument is an understanding that would permit no-warning, challenge inspections of any suspicious facility or location, by the United States, other countries, and the IAEA. This is what Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi agreed to in order to demonstrate that he was serious about nuclear disarmament. In the Libyan case, the United States, the IAEA, and the U.K. had inspected facilities and destroyed and removed 55,000 pounds of nuclear related materials including design information, uranium enrichment materials, and thousands of centrifuge parts almost two years before President Bush announced the lifting of sanctions on Libya. If Kim Jong-Il is equally serious in changing the direction of his country, he should be willing to make a similar commitment.

As it reviews the status of the Six Party talks, the next administration should return to first principles and reexamine its goals. If the aim of American policy is still-as we believe it should be-the "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of all North Korean nuclear programs, then there is no escaping the need for an inspections regime of the sort just described. Instead of being left for the very end of the negotiating process, verification should be moved to the top of the agenda. If the North is unwilling to accept the necessary measures, the United States should be prepared to walk away.

If, on the other hand, the next administration decides to settle for Yongbyon and a pile of plutonium, it should insist on an early date for their dismantlement and repatriation. But it should also be candid about the risks it has chosen to run. And it should begin at once to prepare for the next North Korean nuclear crisis.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Aaron Friedberg is a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.