There are "no good options" for the United States to confront or contain North Korea's nuclear weapons proliferation, according to political science Professor Scott Sagan.
Sagan, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, was one of five foreign policy experts who joined a panel discussion Friday titled "It's a Mad, Mad World: Prospects for Security, Diplomacy and Peace on the Korean Peninsula." Presented by the Law School, the event took place in Dinkelspiel Auditorium as part of Reunion Homecoming Weekend.
Panelists Mi-Hyung Kim, Bernard S. Black, Gi-Wook Shin and Scott D. Sagan took turns weighing in on the difficulties of U.S. diplomatic relations with North Korea during a law school-sponsored discussion. Photo: L.A. Cicero
What makes the situation even more vexing is that the objectives of neither North Korea nor the United States are entirely clear, said law Associate Professor Allen Weiner, a former State Department lawyer and diplomat who moderated the panel.
"Is the United States intent on a regime change? Or putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle?" Weiner asked.
"North Korea feels threatened by the United States and believes nuclear weapons are the only way to protect its national sovereignty," said sociology Associate Professor Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Korean Studies Program in the Asia/Pacific Research Center.
The talk came one day after North Korea announced that it is prepared to "physically unveil" its nuclear program. By Sunday, President George W. Bush announced that he would provide written assurances not to attack North Korea if the country takes steps to halt its proliferation and if other Asian leaders signed, too. Bush, who counted North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," stopped short of offering a formal, Senate-approved nonaggression treaty.
Earlier this month, North Korea claimed to have finished reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium to build a half-dozen nuclear bombs. Faced with a collapsed economy and the legacy of 1.5 million deaths from starvation in the late 1990s, the North Korean government, led by Kim Jong Il, has overtly threatened to use its small arsenal as deterrence against U.S. aggression. Although it has been difficult to verify North Korea's capabilities, international experts have asserted that its main nuclear facility in Yongbyon could produce one or two bombs a year.
Tension first heated up last October when North Korea admitted to having abandoned the 1994 Framework Agreement brokered by the Clinton administration to shut down its nuclear reprocessing facilities.
Confirming U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons capabilities, the former director of the CIA under the Clinton administration, Jim Woolsey, said from the audience that in 1994 the CIA was confident North Korea had enough plutonium to make one or two bombs. Estimating that its current capabilities hover somewhere around six bombs, Woolsey explained North Korea doesn't have good delivery technology. The greater concern, he said, is that it would produce enough plutonium to sell to al-Qaida.
The amount of plutonium it takes to build a bomb is the "size of a grapefruit" -- making it difficult to monitor and stop weapons material shipments, Sagan said.
Believing North Korea is posturing for economic aid and bilateral security guarantees, the United States has sidestepped direct talks and instead joined South Korea, China, Japan and Russia in a round of six-party talks with North Korea last August. Bush's announcement is seen as an effort to jump-start the next round of regional talks that were expected by the end of the year.
The crisis has taken its toll on the longstanding alliance between the United States and South Korea. Panelist Mi-Hyung Kim, a founding member of South Korea's Millennium Democratic Party and general counsel and executive vice president of the Kumho Business Group, the ninth largest Korean conglomerate, said the relationship between the United States and South Korea is the "rockiest" it has ever been because of "Bush's hard-line policy on North Korea" and the fact that wartime control of the South Korean military reverts to U.S. hands. Bilateral talks would further alienate South Korea, which fears that Seoul will become a "sea of fire," she said.
"South Korea thinks Bush is a bigger threat than nuclear weapons 35 miles to the north," Kim explained, pointing out that South Korea will bear the brunt of a military conflict. "South Korea wants to avoid war and economic burdens it can't afford," she said.
Part of the problem has been the failure of the United States to explain its policy to the South Korean people. "The United States is bad at selling its policies to publics abroad," Weiner noted. We're used to dealing bilaterally with government officials; public diplomacy is a skill we've had to learn over the past 15 years."
"A PR campaign by the United States is not going to solve this," Kim countered.
"If North Korea collapses, how will South Korea survive?" asked law Professor Bernard Black, a panelist who served as an economic policy adviser to the South Korean government. "South Korea would have to devote 30 percent of its GDP to bring North Korea up to its standard of living and that's not sustainable.
"South Korea has lived under North Korean guns for the last 50 years. North Korea can destroy Seoul at any time. South Koreans are saying, 'What's changed?' The last thing South Korea wants is to provoke North Korea to attack."
China, North Korea's closest ally, may have the most leverage through trade sanctions and has a vested interest in halting regional proliferation, Kim said. "China does not need another nuclear neighbor. ... It has enough problems with India and Pakistan." North Korea's proliferation could lead to a nuclear Japan, South Korea and "its worst fear, a nuclear Taiwan."
Predicting that nothing would come of the next round of talks until after the next U.S. presidential election, Kim said ironically, "North Korea is expecting a regime change in the United States to an administration that is more reasonable."
"North Korea is not a crazy rogue state but a dangerously desperate state," said Sagan. "When you play poker with someone who's cheated in the past, you can expect them to cheat again."