North Korea — Friend or Foe?


Dec 2, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2001.

The United States' list of countries that sponsor terrorism is only seven states long—Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Although most of these countries are unlikely to shake this designation in the near future, North Korea has a historic opportunity to rejoin the community of nations and recast its relationship with the U.S. The window of opportunity for this rapprochement, however, is rapidly closing.

Although North Korea expressed public sympathy after the Sept. 11 attacks, last week Pyongyang threatened "countermeasures" in response to U.S. criticism of the North's biological and chemical weapons program. Even before the September attacks, the Bush administration had been impatient with North Korea's lack of responsiveness to concerns about its weapons.

Further obstructing the relationship was Pyongyang's irritation over U.S. identification of North Korea as a "rogue state," which the White House uses to justify its national missile defense program. North Korea also is concerned about the inconsistencies in U.S. efforts to deliver oil and replacement nuclear reactors, which Washington agreed to do under a framework that terminated North Korean activities at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Recent history, though, provides some reason for hope. There have been signs that leader Kim Jong Il wants to improve North Korea's relationship with the U.S.

Motivated largely by a desire to feed its people and revive its moribund economy, North Korea has negotiated with the U.S. over limiting its missile program and recasting its nuclear program away from weapons and toward power generation.

At this moment, U.S. officials are unlikely to have the patience to coax North Korea to the table. Yet the administration has made clear that it will judge all relationships with other countries on their policies toward terrorism. So if North Korea takes the correct next steps, Washington will surely listen.

Pyongyang should look beyond the current squabble, seize the moment and officially renounce terrorism.

The last major terrorist act definitively traced to North Korea occurred in 1987, when North Korean agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air Lines flight, killing 115 people. Its terrorist program since then has been largely inactive, so it should not be difficult for North Korea to build on its statement made with the U.S. in 2000 in which Pyongyang declared its opposition to terrorism.

North Korea also should cease supporting and harboring outside terrorist groups. Not only is such support morally repugnant and contrary to international norms, but it is not economically or politically lucrative for the regime.

Finally, North Korea could be useful in providing intelligence on the groups with whom it communicates.

While the level of mistrust between the U.S. and North Korea is too high for very close cooperation now, North Korea has apparently offered to provide terrorist-related information to Washington. The U.S. should pursue such discussions.

From these unilateral acts, North Korea could earn the goodwill of the U.S. and prevent the possibility of being drawn in on the wrong side of the war against terrorism. In return, the U.S. would probably be inclined to pursue efforts to provide North Korea with electrical power and other needed economic assistance.

The U.S., meanwhile, would gain additional assistance in the war against terrorism, as well as reengaging with a country whose potential for developing weapons of mass destruction would suggest that more communication is probably better than less.

While it is North Korea's move to make, progress is more likely to come with reconciliation than confrontation.

The U.S. government should urge North Korea to act constructively at this critical juncture.

Nina Hachigian is the director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at RAND. Bruce W. Bennett is a senior policy analyst at RAND.

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