Hisahiko Okazaki: The Perry Approach to Pyongyang

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mr. Okazaki is the director of the Okazaki Institute and former Japanese ambassador to Thailand and Saudi Arabia.]

With Pyongyang now talking about a possible second nuclear test, starting the repair of its nuclear reactor, and still basking in the glow from its April missile test, it's clear that the Obama administration and its partners need a new approach to the North Korean nuclear problem. The best thing to do is to reflect on the past negotiations and learn lessons from them.

The Bush administration first adopted a strong approach to North Korea, declaring it part of the "Axis of Evil." In its final years, the Bush White House returned to the status quo ante of the "framework" formula of the Clinton administration, which focused on little more than freezing temporarily the plutonium production of the main Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for some economic benefit.

To achieve these goals, the Bush administration gave permanent concessions to North Korea. Washington looked the other way as North Korea counterfeited $100 bills and Macau unfroze Pyongyang's bank accounts. In October 2008, the U.S. removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Because these concessions could not be easily revoked if North Korea started acting up, they were ineffective at securing good behavior.

The Clinton administration, by contrast, gave essentially temporary concessions, starting in 1994. In 1998, the U.S. suspected North Korea was building an underground nuclear facility. In the same year, North Korea launched a Taepodong missile across the Japanese archipelago. After strenuous negotiations, Former Secretary of Defense William Perry convinced North Korea to accept onsite inspections of the suspected underground facility. Pyongyang also agreed to suspend missile tests. In return, the U.S. and its allies gave North Korea humanitarian food aid.

This approach worked because the U.S. side always reserved the right to suspend the supply of oil and the construction of the light-water nuclear plant. Mr. Perry also respected the wishes of America's allies. The 1999 Perry Report on North Korea policy says, "We have devised this strategy in close consultation with the governments of ROK [South Korea] and Japan, and it has their full support. Indeed, it is a joint strategy in which all three of our countries play coordinated and mutually reinforcing roles in pursuit of the same objectives." In fact, representatives of the three nations met intensively in their respective three capitals, as well as in Hawaii.

The contrast with the Bush administration's approach, spearheaded by former Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, is obvious. The Japanese felt particularly bitter over Mr. Hill's February 6, 2008 testimony in the Senate, where he said: "The United States reaffirmed its intent to fulfill its commitments regarding rescinding the designation of the DPRK [North Korea] as a state sponsor of terrorism." Japan was neither consulted nor informed about this prior commitment, in spite of the Japanese Prime Minister's repeated appeal on this matter to the Mr. Bush.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the structure of the six-party talks. But the history shows that a real negotiation cannot be conducted in a multilateral forum. The six-party framework mainly serves to secure the presence of North Korea, courtesy of China. Then the U.S. and North Korea discuss and negotiate the substantial matters at hand, with Washington conscious of its allies' wishes. Why not continue this formula by replacing U.S.-North Korea talks with Mr. Perry's approach?..
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