Talks with North Korea eventually must resume

North Korea's apparent test of a nuclear weapon has provoked another debate over whether it's worth negotiating with rogue states.
I believe this is not the moment for a U.S. dialogue with Pyongyang. This dangerous regime, with its track record of illegal weapons sales, must be disabused of any idea that it can get a free pass to the nuclear club. Strong U.N. economic sanctions are crucial, backed by a united front of U.S. and Asian powers. Also crucial is President Bush's warning that North Korea will be held accountable if it passes nuclear materiel to other states or groups.
But then what? I've talked to no one -- dove, hawk or owl -- who believes sanctions alone will force Kim Jong Il to give up his arsenal. Nor does anyone believe military force is a viable option (provided Kim doesn't sell his plutonium to al-Qaida or Iran).
Unless sanctions are crafted to prod North Korea back to the table, it's hard to see any chance of curbing Pyongyang's nuclear program. But can talks with North Korea work?
Inaccurate assessment
Republicans claim that the Clinton-era negotiations with North Korea were a failure and demonstrate why talks are pointless. But that assessment stands history on its head.
In 1994 North Korea was threatening to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and turn spent reactor fuel into bomb-grade plutonium. The Clinton administration prepared for a possible military strike, but then turned to former President Jimmy Carter as negotiator in Pyongyang.
The result was the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea sealed its Yongbyon reactor and fuel rods and put them under U.N. inspection. Had that reactor not remained frozen until 2002, it could have produced enough fuel to make dozens of bombs.
On taking office, President Bush labeled North Korea part of the "axis of evil" and made clear he was more interested in "regime change" than talks. Then in 2002, U.S. officials found evidence that North Korea was cheating on the agreement, by pursuing a secret effort to enrich uranium. The United States drew back from the Agreed Framework, and North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors and started making nuclear weapons.
Yet a simple cost-benefit analysis shows that the Agreed Framework had still been a success. Clinton's negotiations stopped a program that was already capable of making bomb materiel. The secret uranium program, by contrast, is a long-term undertaking, and there are no signs that it has produced weapons materiel.
True, the Clinton administration's negotiations didn't end North Korea's nuclear program -- but they did delay the production of weapons for eight years. Some on the Bush team now advocate bombing Iran's nuclear energy facilities -- at terrible risk -- just to delay the Iranian program by perhaps 3 to 5 years.
Since the collapse of the Agreed Framework on the Bush watch, North Korea has produced around six to 12 nuclear weapons.
President Bush finally decided, during his second term, to try negotiations in concert with our Asian allies. He finally let U.S. negotiator Chris Hill meet directly with North Korea officials within those six-nation talks. This direct dialogue led to a promising joint statement in September 2005, in which Pyongyang pledged to dismantle its nuclear program in return for security guarantees and aid.
Those talks eventually fell apart, too. Many experts believe that a key cause was disagreement within the administration over whether the U.S. goal should be to change North Korea's regime or its behavior. Just as the joint statement was signed, U.S. officials were pursuing international bank sanctions against North Korea. These may have been justified in principle -- the Pyongyang regime is a notorious counterfeiter and smuggler -- but the timing seemed designed to kill any deal.
Now North Korea has tested a weapon and is poised to make more bombs. Once again, the White House must choose its approach to this recalcitrant regime.
Talks with North Korea are horribly frustrating, and it is unclear whether Kim will ever give up his weapons. He may have taken the lesson from the Iraq invasion (as Iran has) that nukes are his guarantee of keeping power. There is strong Bush resistance to talks -- especially direct talks -- or sending a U.S. emissary along the lines of a Carter. And the chances of success are much slimmer now than under Clinton.
But at some point the White House will have to decide whether it wants to pursue the small chance of freezing Pyongyang's program, or at least limiting the number of weapons. As Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations says: "If they only have enough materiel for six bombs, they are less likely to sell it than if they have enough for 24 bombs."
Perhaps Bush will listen to his father's key adviser, James Baker III, who is already tasked with reassessing America's Iraq strategy. Baker recently said, "I believe in talking to your enemies. It's got to be hard-nosed, it's got to be determined. You don't give away anything, but in my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."
Baker has already spoken with an Iranian representative. Pyongyang next?
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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