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Solution to Standoff with NK

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Call for a diplomatic solution to the standoff, from John Lewis, who headed a recent trip to north Korea.

Hope on N. Korea

By John W. Lewis
Tuesday, January 27, 2004; Page A17 Washington Post

Last August, just after my ninth visit to North Korea since 1987, the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear crisis ended in stalemate. In the days that followed, I began organizing a return trip by a group of people who had been studying the North´s nuclear program and the tortuous path of U.S.-North Korean relations.

The January visit to Pyongyang fell into three principal areas: Foreign Ministry discussions, a visit to the Nuclear Scientific Research Center at Yongbyon, and extended meetings with officials dealing with a variety of economic, military, scientific, humanitarian and human rights questions. Obviously, what has attracted the most attention is our visit to Yongbyon, but that was only one of the directions we took.

My previous trips to North Korea had covered the years from the distancing of Pyongyang´s erstwhile allies, China and Russia, following the Cold War, through the disastrous periods of flood, drought and famine in the mid-1990s, to the attempts to introduce economic reforms in 2002. The changes from 1987 to 2004 have been dramatic, and they continue. Along the roads and in the towns, small entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the new pricing and market policies. The real shocker was the massive semi-private market on Tong Il Street in Pyongyang, where potential buyers can find quantities of meat, vegetables and fruits as well as hardware, furniture and clothes. While life in the countryside remains stark, similar markets are said to be springing up in other cities, and South Korean money is flowing in to build a huge industrial park just north of the Demilitarized Zone. A market economy, however limited, has arrived in the North.

These changes are as important as they are dramatic. They put the nuclear program in a new context. North Korea´s desperately needed and desired economic policies depend on opening to the outside world and can succeed only if its nuclear weapons program is totally dismantled, which all parties to the six-party talks say is their goal. Last spring the nuclear program was the lead element in Pyongyang´s "military-first" strategy, but now the program and the strategy are under pressure from economic priorities. The West´s misperception of North Korea´s economic state (stuck in the images of the mid-1990s famine) has skewed its ability to understand the complex motivations driving Pyongyang´s leadership.

Misinterpretations and language barriers may have also raised roadblocks to diplomacy. At the Foreign Ministry, we discussed the contentious issue of North Korea´s supposed admission on Oct. 4, 2002, to having a clandestine highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in violation of the letter and spirit of the 1994 Agreed Framework. There is a disagreement about whether North Korea actually admitted to having such a program at a meeting with U.S. officials. The disagreement concerns a difference between what North Korea believes it said and what the United States believes it heard. The issue is important because when it was claimed that the North had admitted to having an HEU program, diplomacy died for a year and North Korea advanced at full speed toward a nuclear arsenal.

Once who said what about the enriched-uranium program has been clarified, we will still have to deal with the facts. As one delegation member said to the Koreans: "The key issue is the U.S. has independent information that makes it believe the DPRK [North Korea] has an HEU program. In the U.S., there is the widespread view that the complete, verifiable resolution of this HEU issue is now mandatory. This is a practical issue, and there must be a multilateral discussion to resolve it."

In response, the vice foreign minister said the North had chosen the plutonium path and had no facilities or scientists dedicated to an HEU program, adding that Pyongyang was open to technical talks on the issue -- a significant new development.

Just before we arrived in North Korea, its government reissued a proposal for a freeze on the manufacturing, testing or transferring of its nuclear weapons, and the Foreign Ministry officials we met were pleased with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell´s positive initial reaction. They said that in response to their proposal, they want the United States to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, to lift political, economic and military sanctions, and, with other neighboring states, to provide energy, including heavy fuel oil. Our delegation probed this proposal, which Pyongyang wants followed by security assurances from the United States. The freeze, the officials told us, would be an achievable first step on the way to the complete and verifiable dismantling of the North´s nuclear program.

We expressed our view that North Korea´s freeze proposal was unbalanced -- or as Pyongyang itself was to put it: "their word for our actions." We suggested it would be far better to begin with their "word" that a freeze had begun in exchange for our "word" on a security guarantee. In any case, North Korea´s diplomats stated that a compromise was quite possible.

The main challenge now is to engage North Korea and deal with our mutual fears and threats. Neither war nor a nuclearized North Korea is an option. The diplomacy of nuclear disarmament in this age is starkly different from that of the Cold War. Mutual deterrence between vastly unequal states lacks stability and reasonable predictability. It does not exist.

The opportunity for a diplomatic solution has grown in recent weeks. The North Korean Foreign Ministry said that if our visit helped "even a bit" to remove the ambiguities and misunderstandings of the crisis, it "would serve as a substantial foundation for a peaceful settlement." We fully recognize that this "bit" must be followed up with many more, but we believe such a settlement is no longer a vain hope.

(Washington Post) 1/27/2004