The ICAS Lectures


The Collapse of the February 29 Agreement:
Is Denuclearization of North Korea Still a Credible Policy Objective?

Larry A. Niksch

ICAS Winter Symposium

February 14, 2012 Tuesday 1:00 PM - 4:30 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B318
United States House of Repreesentatives Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry A. Niksch

[Editor's note: The original version of this paper presented to the ICAS Winter Symposium has been revised to account for subsequent events. sjk]

The Collapse of the February 29 Agreement:
Is Denuclearization of North Korea Still a Credible Policy Objective?

Larry A. Niksch 1

This paper will examine:

(1) The Obama Administration's negotiating of the February 29, 2012 agreement with North Korea.

(2) The inadequacies of the Obama Administration's responses to the North Korean missile test of April 13, 2012.

(3) The need for an alternative response strategy in view of the declining opportunity of the United States to prevent North Korea from producing highly enriched uranium and uranium nuclear warheads for its missiles.

(4) The end of credibility for the U.S. policy priority of denuclearization of North Korea when North Korea develops and mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles.

(5) Suggestions for alternative U.S. and South Korean strategies toward North Korea if, as likely, the denuclearization strategy loses all value.

Vows to Divert from Past U.S. Strategy

The collapse of the February 29, 2012, U.S.-North Korean agreement on nuclear programs, missiles, and food aid proved to be another repetition of past episodes of touted progress in negotiating with Pyongyang only to be dashed by subsequent North Korean provocations. It was a repetition of past episodes for at least four reasons. First, it displayed again U.S.--particularly State Department inadequacies--in negotiating with North Korea. Second, it was another example of the United States abandoning established negotiating principles when it faces pressure to obtain an agreement with North Korea. Third, it proved to be another failure of the United States to seize opportunities to gain stronger support from other involved governments in promoting a pro-U.S. agenda with Pyongyang. Fourth, North Korea once again demonstrated that after entering into agreements with the United States or other "adversary" states, its diplomatic strategy prioritizes finding ways to limit and/or avoid carrying out its obligations under the agreements. That trait of North Korean diplomacy has not changed in the transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un.

Following the early 2009 North Korean rebuffs to the incoming Obama Administration (rejection of six party talks, a long-range missile test, a nuclear test, and expulsion of the U.S. food aid program), Administration officials stressed that the Obama Administration would not deal with North Korea in the same way as previous U.S. administrations had done, principally the Bush and Clinton administrations. These officials emphasized that in negotiating with North Korea, they would not "cover old ground" by dealing with issues that had been negotiated over several times. They also asserted that the Obama Administration would not return to six party talks until North Korea demonstrated that it would live up to the denuclearization commitments it had made in a six party statement of September 2005. The Obama Administration also revised U.S. food aid offers by terminating any new offers of bulk grain (rice and wheat) in favor of "nutritional assistance" in the form of specialized items suitable for small children and pregnant women. Finally, in the wake of North Korea's provocations against South Korea, the Administration asserted that the United States would not resume nuclear negotiations with North Korea until Pyongyang demonstrated that it would negotiate seriously with South Korea.

These stated revisions seemed realistic, especially in the context of the North Korean provocations in 2009 and against South Korea in 2010. However, the Obama Administration retained three important features of U.S. policy, as followed by the Bush and Clinton administrations. One was the total--100 percent--priority given to the nuclear issue; other issues--conventional forces, economic policy and reforms, and human rights--continued to receive scant attention. Even issues closely related to the nuclear issue, North Korea's demand for a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty negotiation and North Korean nuclear collaboration with Iran and Syria, were kept in the background by the Administration and the State Department.

A second continued feature of U.S. policy was the reaction to North Korean nuclear and missile provocations by taking these cases to the United Nations Security Council. Twice, in 2009 and 2010, the Obama Administration took North Korean provocations to the Security Council, as the Clinton Administration had done in 1994 and the Bush Administration had done in 2006.

The third feature was a heavy reliance on China to influence North Korea into more reasonable postures on the nuclear issue. This reliance on China reached a high point during the last two years of the Bush Administration when Beijing influenced the Bush Administration to drop conditions for North Korea to admit to uranium enrichment and nuclear proliferation with other countries. The Obama Administration did eschew returning to six party talks despite Chinese urgings, but it still sought Chinese support, especially in dealing with North Korean provocations.

Returning to Past Patterns

The Obama Administration's decision in late 2011 to attempt another high level bilateral negotiation with North Korea was not, itself, a return to the past patterns of U.S. diplomacy, which the Administration had vowed not to repeat. There were good reasons to attempt a negotiation. However, the way State Department officials negotiated and key terms of the February 29 agreement did repeat previous patterns of U.S. diplomacy. The Administration's reaction to the North Korean missile launch was another repeat U.S. performance.

In October 2008, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill went to Pyongyang to negotiate over the Bush Administration's attempt to install an international inspections system inside North Korea to investigate rising evidence that North Korea was engaged in a clandestine uranium enrichment program. He returned, claiming that he had secured an agreement with Pyongyang. However, North Korea said nothing about an agreement for two weeks, then asserted that there was no such agreement. Hill produced nothing in writing. There was no written agreement in Korean and English, signed by Hill and North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye-gwan. Hill acknowledged that his claimed agreement was a verbal, "handshake" agreement. In essence, it did not exist.

In February 2012, State Department negotiators also settled for a verbal, "handshake" agreement. This time, North Korea did acknowledge that there was an agreement. The two sides, however, quickly disagreed on the meaning of the agreement regarding North Korea plans for a "satellite launch" around the time of Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday (April 15, 2012). U.S. officials contended that North Korea's Kim Gye-gwan understood during the negotiations that the Obama Administration interpreted the agreement's moratorium on future missile testing to include any so-called satellite launch. North Korea, however, stressed that Kim made no commitment to cancel the planned launch. So, as in October 2008, a vague, handshake agreement lacked the substance to bind North Korea.

Part of the Obama Administration's motive for seeking negotiations was the information indicating that North Korea was making progress in its uranium enrichment program toward producing weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). The importance of this cannot be overstated. In 2009, after years of denials, North Korea proclaimed confidently that it had an active uranium enrichment program. In November 2010, the North Koreans revealed a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon to visiting U.S. nuclear expert, Sigfried Hecker. Hecker described a modern, sophisticated plant that he said could be easily be converted to produce HEU. Following his visit and his briefing of the Obama Administration, he and U.S. officials said repeatedly that North Korea undoubtedly had secret uranium enrichment facilities outside Yongbyon. U.S. officials added that the Yongbyon facility indicated that North Korea's uranium enrichment program was more advanced than the Iranian program.

Yet, the one provision in the February 29 agreement dealing with HEU was perhaps the weakest for the United States. That provision would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to return to Yongbyon to monitor the nuclear facilities there. Those facilities were to include the uranium enrichment plant, which the North Korean Government had revealed to Hecker. North Korea did agree in the February 29 agreement to a moratorium on uranium enrichment at Yongbyon. A moratorium and getting the IAEA into the uranium enrichment plant would have some value to the United States. However, in allowing Hecker to see the Yongbyon facility, Kim Jong-il had set up the facility as a bargaining chip in a future negotiation with the United States. He would not have done that, exposing the plant to IAEA monitoring, if he did not have other uranium enrichment installations in operation--as Hecker and U.S. officials believed. Thus, the Obama Administration and the State Department settled for a role of the IAEA only slightly larger than several earlier Yongbyon monitoring roles that the Bush and Clinton administrations had negotiated with North Korea. Such a role would have little chance of limiting North Korea's uranium enrichment program. The Administration, in reality, was back to covering old ground in negotiations with Pyongyang.

The February 29 agreement discounted a major commitment North Korea made in the September 2005 six party statement that it would return to the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to IAEA safeguards "at an early date." Returning to IAEA safeguards means that North Korea would adhere to the terms of the 1992 North Korea-IAEA Safeguards Agreement. Of the commitments North Korea made in the September 2005 statement, the commitment to return to IAEA safeguards and the NPT "at an early date" was the only commitment that specified that kind of timetable. IAEA safeguards, as specified in the 1992 Safeguards Agreement, would allow the IAEA to conduct inspections throughout North Korean territory. It appears that only a full-scale IAEA inspection regime throughout North Korea would have any chance of even slowing down North Korea's progress toward producing HEU. Yet, the Obama Administration and the State Department allowed a continuation of this unfulfilled commitment in the February 29 agreement. North Korean territory outside Yongbyon would remain off-limits to the IAEA, just as it was off-limits in the 1994 Agreed Framework and the February 2007 six party agreement.

Finally, State Department negotiators cast aside the Obama Administration's commitment not to negotiate with North Korea unless North Korea showed a willingness to negotiate seriously with South Korea. The February 29 agreement said nothing about North-South relations. There is little evidence that it was discussed substantively in the negotiations. This, despite the fact that North Korea's belligerence toward South Korea deepened in January and February 2012. This was illustrated by Pyongyang's Nine Demands directed at Seoul by the National Defense Commission (the North Korean military leadership) on February 2, 2012. The National Defense Commission declared that future North-South talks depended on the South Korean Government taking a number of steps, including the cessation of joint military exercises with the United States, ending the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea, ceasing opposition to Pyongyang's proposal of a bilateral North Korean-U.S. "peace mechanism," and returning to a policy of large-scale, unconditional economic and financial aid to North Korea.

U.S. Reaction to the North Korean Missile Launch: Missing a Negotiating Advantage

The reaction of the Obama Administration to the April 13, 2012, North Korean missile launch was very much in line with its reaction to the April and May 2009 North Korean missile and nuclear tests, the March 2010 North Korean sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, and the Bush Administration's reaction to the North Korean missile and nuclear tests of July and October 2006. The Administration declared that the missile test had voided the February 29 agreement and, therefore, the United States would not proceed with the shipments of 240,000 tons of food aid, as promised as part of the agreement. Like the earlier U.S. responses, the Administration took the issue to the United Nations Security Council. This time, it did not propose a new round of sanctions against Pyongyang, but it did propose and secured a statement by the President of the Security Council calling on North Korea to cease future missile and nuclear provocations and for U.N. member nations to enforce the sanctions the Security Council had affected in 2006 and 2009. North Korea, in turn, rescinded its invitation to the IAEA to discuss a return to Yongbyon.

It seems to me that the Administration had an alternative strategy, which would have taken greater advantage of North Korea's flouting of the missile moratorium provision of the February 29 agreement. That alternative would be to declare that in view of North Korea's missile test, the February 29 agreement would have to be re-negotiated and amended. The U.S. negotiating objective in a re-negotiated agreement would be to strengthen the authority of the IAEA so that the Agency could conduct nation-wide nuclear inspections in North Korea. Behind this objective would be the U.S. policy objectives of unearthing information on the status of North Korea's uranium enrichment program and limiting/containing an expansion of the program toward full-scale production of HEU. The Obama Administration would return to its pre-February 29 position that North Korea must demonstrate that would carry out its commitments in the September 2005 six party statement, this time with special emphasis on Pyongyang's commitment to return to IAEA safeguards and the NPT "at an early date."

This strategy response to the missile launch would have three advantages over the response of simply abandoning the February 29 agreement and taking the missile launch to the U.N. Security Council.

First, the missile launch failed, which even the North Korean Government admitted. This, it seems to me, gave the Obama Administration more flexibility in its response.

Second, proposing a re-negotiation of an amended February 29 agreement would have given the Obama Administration a greater opportunity to influence China and Russia to support a key element of U.S. denuclearization policy--securing nation-wide nuclear inspections throughout North Korea. The last six party meeting, December 2008, focused in verification and inspections. China offered a proposal publicly described as a compromise proposal. The United States, Russia, South Korea, and Japan supported the Chinese proposal. Only North Korea rejected it. Thus, the Bush Administration, despite the bungled October 2008 affair, had secured a five vs. one advantage in the six party talks over the inspections issue.

In 2010, the Chinese and Russian governments issued statements that North Korea should allow international inspections of its nuclear programs and facilities. The Chinese Government's statement of December 22, 2010, specifically said that North Korea's nuclear programs should be "subject to IAEA's inspections." The Russian Government also issued several statements calling for North Korea to allow IAEA verification of its nuclear programs. The Chinese and Russian positions gave the Obama Administration the potential of gaining strong support from Beijing and Moscow for a proposal to renegotiate the February 29 agreement to expand the authority of the IAEA.

But such support would not be maximized in the U.N. Security Council. Prior to the February 29 agreement, the United States had disagreements with China and Russia in the Security Council over proposals to increase sanctions on Iran and Syria. China's history in the Security Council demonstrated that the Chinese Government sought to avoid penalizing other countries through the Security Council. China has its own reasons for its attitude, one possibly being a fear that it someday could be the target of proposals for U.N. sanctions.

China also clearly favored dealing with North Korea through the six party talks, of which it was the chairman, rather than through the U.N. Security Council. Herein lay the opportunity for the Obama Administration. If North Korea refused a U.S. proposal to renegotiate the February 29 agreement bilaterally, the Administration would have the option of asking China to convene a six party meeting to discuss specifically the February 29 agreement and the North Korean missile test. China, which long had advocated reconvening the six party forum, could hardly reject such a request. At a six party meeting, the Obama Administration could have proposed amending the February 29 agreement to authorize full safeguards authority for the IAEA in North Korea. It seems to me that there would be a high probability that China and Russia would support such a U.S. proposal. Thus, another five vs. one situation would be created, placing greater pressure on North Korea and perhaps heading off another North Korean nuclear test.

The Obama Administration also could offer China and Russia--and even North Korea--a couple of inducements to accept an amending of the February 29 agreement. One would be to link the provision of 240,000 tons of food aid to acceptance of the U.S. proposal to enlarge IAEA authority. Another would be to link expanded IAEA authority to U.S. acceptance of a surprise proposal that a North Korean diplomat made in New York a couple of weeks before February 29. He said that North Korea was ready to exchange liaison offices with the United States. The exchange of diplomatic liaison offices was an old agreement in the 1994 Agreed Framework. Two years later, North Korea backed out of the proposed exchange. China and Russia consistently have urged the United States to increase diplomatic interchanges with North Korea. This now would give the Obama Administration added leverage to press for full inspection authority for the IAEA.

The Final Advantage/Necessity: Concentrating U.S. Policy on HEU and Nuclear Warheading

About a month after George W. Bush took office in 2001, I attended a meeting on North Korea at the Brookings Institution. Several former Clinton Administration officials also were in attendance. During the meeting, one of the most senior Clinton people in dealing with North Korea remarked that (to paraphrase) "we have to get the IAEA back into North Korea in order to look for HEU." That same objective became imperative for the Bush Administration after June 2008. Now, more than ever, it needs to be the paramount goal of the Obama Administration. The difference now is that, I believe, time is running short for the United States to make any progress toward even limiting North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, certainly for achieving any movement toward denuclearization.

North Korea is close to producing weapons-grade HEU. This is the consensus among nuclear experts and apparently within the U.S. intelligence community. Some experts believe that HEU production already is underway. HEU production, I believe, will enable North Korea to cross quickly a critical bridge in its nuclear programs--a success in producing nuclear warheads that it would mount on its Nodong and Scud missiles and later on longer range missiles like the Musudan. Once North Korea crosses this bridge, the U.S. situation with North Korea will change fundamentally. Part of this change will be the end of usefulness in giving priority to denuclearization in U.S. policy toward North Korea.

In December 2011, the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul published my paper, "When North Korea Mounts Nuclear Warheads on Its Missiles." In the paper, I pointed out the recognition of the sophistication of North Korea's uranium enrichment program as shown to Sigfried Hecker in November 2010, the consensus that among nuclear experts that North Korea was capable of producing HEU, and the belief among U.S. officials and nuclear experts that North Korea has other secret uranium enrichment facilities and that its program is more advanced than the Iranian program.

I also described numerous reports of North Korean-Iranian collaboration in developing uranium enrichment technology and nuclear warheads that could be mounted on Iran's Shahab-3 missile, a twin of the Nodong. I had conducted extensive research on the North Korean-Iranian relationship in my last three years at the Congressional Research Service. My findings on nuclear collaboration are contained in my CRS Report, "North Korean Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy." In my paper for the Institute for National Security Strategy, I also cited statements by U.S. and South Korean officials that North Korea is close to the production of nuclear warheads.

In examining North Korea's ability to produce nuclear warheads, the central element of my paper was an examination of the technology North Korea received from Pakistan's A.Q. Khan and his network during the 1990s well into the 2000s. Most attention given to Khan's collaboration with North Korea has focused on his provision of a pilot set of about 20 centrifuges that could produce HEU. However, my paper showed that North Korea also received from Khan access to the design information for the uranium nuclear warhead, which the Khan Laboratories developed for the Ghuari missile during the 1998-2001 period. The Ghuari missile is a twin of the Nodong; the original Ghuari missiles were about 35 Nodongs supplied by North Korea prior to 1998. Equally as important, North Korean nuclear experts were present at the six nuclear tests, which Pakistan carried out in May 1998. These tests provided the core information that Khan used to develop the Ghauri warhead by 2001. North Korea appears to have received all of the test data.

North Korean nuclear experts worked in the Khan Laboratories until at least 2002 during the period when the nuclear warheads were perfected and mounted on the Ghuari missiles. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, disclosed the New Yorker Magazine, reportedly stated that North Korea and Pakistan shared "warhead design information" and "weapons-testing data." A.Q. Khan's account, given to British journalist Simon Henderson and described in the Washington Post on December 28, 2009, stated that part of Khan's collaboration with North Korea was that "the North Koreans would help Pakistan in fitting the nuclear warhead into the Ghauri missile."

In short, my paper showed that there can be no doubt that North Korea received from A.Q. Khan the blueprint design of a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on Nodong missiles and direct work experience in developing the warhead. After the 1998 nuclear tests, it took Khan Laboratories about two years to develop and produce this warhead. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated on CBS's 60 Minutes on January 28, 2012, that Iran had the capability to develop a nuclear warhead for a missile within two to three years. Given the data and experience North Korea gained from A.Q. Khan and North Korea's collaboration with Iran in nuclear warhead development, North Korea appears to have the expertise to produce a nuclear warhead for its Nodong missile in one to two years after it has produced the HEU as the core component of a warhead.

North Korea will become a genuine nuclear weapons power once it mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles. It will gain more proliferation opportunities with countries like Iran and Syria. Its intimidation tactics toward South Korea likely will grow, including repeats of the singular military provocations against South Korea of 2010. South Korea no doubt would undergo a fundamental reassessment and national debate over its policies toward North Korea. Japan would experience a huge shock as a likely target of nuclear-tipped Nodong missiles. This likely would produce a national debate and reassessment of Japan's defense policy. Advocacy of Japan developing long- range strike capabilities no doubt would grow.

For the United States, its situation with North Korea will change dramatically when North Korea mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles. The first implication would be the end of usefulness of denuclearization diplomacy, including six party talks. Any realistic assessment would have to conclude that there would be no prospect of negotiating an end to North Korea's nuclear programs or even a measured reduction in them once the North Korean leadership has accomplished this fundamental strategic- military goal of mounting nuclear warheads on missiles. Current North Korean leaders never will give up such an achievement.

All of this points to the unwelcome fact that this latest diplomatic episode involving the February 29 agreement constitutes the "last gasp" of U.S. denuclearization policy unless the Obama Administration can revise its response to the North Korean missile test to give the denuclearization policy "life support." Once North Korea has crossed the bridge to a warheading capability, the United States will need to develop a new strategy toward North Korea that gives greater priority to other, non-nuclear issues in attempting to influence North Korea to turn some of its policies in a more positive direction, including its internal policies. Such changes in internal policies likely will be the key to changing North Korean nuclear policies but only in the very long term.

Post-Nuclear Warheading Strategies for the United States and South Korea

It seems to me that U.S. and South Korean (R.O.K.) strategies toward a North Korea possessing nuclear warheads should have four components: (1) raising the priority given to non-nuclear issues, particularly North Korean economic reforms and human rights; (2) developing diplomatic mechanisms to manage nuclear crises with North Korea; (3) enhancing military deterrence; and (4) developing a distinctive South Korea agenda of negotiating issues with North Korea.

In reacting to North Korea's April 13 missile test, the Chinese, Russian, and South Korean governments stated in their criticisms of the missile test that the North Korean Government should give greater priority to improving the livelihood of the North Korean people. R.O.K. President Lee Myung-bak cited the estimated cost of the missile test ($850 million) as capable of purchasing enough food overseas to feed the food-short North Korean people for one year. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Clinton, voiced similar advice to North Korea. President Lee specifically has called on North Korea to institute economic reforms. In Washington in April 2012, a major conference was held on North Korea's concentration camp system. The second edition of a major study of the concentration camps was published at the same time.

A post-denuclearization policy by Washington first should seek to draw North Korea into a dialogue on these issues rather than specific negotiations aimed at agreements. This could be done through liaison office diplomats, ambassadorial talks in a third country, or regularly scheduled meetings of officials, or even a shift of the focus of six party talks. The U.S. objective should be to draw North Korea into a discussion of economic reforms and human rights. U.S. officials also should be prepared to give a detailed response to the issues that North Korean officials would raise.

U.S. officials should condition any economic and financial aid to a North Korean commitment to carry out specified economic reforms along the lines instituted by Deng Xiao-ping in China in the 1980s. This should include food aid, which should be conditioned on "Chinese-style" agricultural reforms. U.S. officials should describe to North Korean counterparts the economic benefits to the Chinese people of Deng's reforms and how these improved U.S.-China relations. Special emphasis should be given to agricultural reforms. U.S. officials could outline how multilateral assistance could help North Korea carry out economic reforms. The South Korean Government should voice similar themes in its contacts with North Korea. A U.S.-South Korean economic reform strategy should be tailored to influence Chinese opinion and encourage the Chinese Government to pressure North Korea harder to institute "Chinese-style economic reforms."

The North Korean regime is most vulnerable to pressure for change on the economy, given the country's economic situation. The new, post-Kim Jong-il leadership may prove more flexible on economic policies sooner than it will be on nuclear and military policies.

On human rights, U.S. officials would need to stress to North Korean counterparts that North Korea must be prepared to discuss the concentration camp system with the United States and other countries. They should stress that normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations would depend on an extensive release of political prisoners and alleviation of the harsh conditions in the concentration camps. The United States should call on North Korea continually to grant access of the International Committee of the Red Cross into the camps.

Nuclear crises with North Korea are probable when North Korea mounts nuclear warheads on its missiles. Imagine the situation of North Korean artillery shelling of Yeongpyong island and South Korean threats of military retaliation in November and December 2010 if North Korea threatened to launch nuclear warheads against South Korea. The North Korean military leadership may believe that nuclear warheads would give them a deterrent against South Korean and/or U.S. retaliation if North Korea conducted singular military provocations against South Korea. The U.S. Government will need better means of communicating quickly with the Pyongyang regime when North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons. The present mechanisms, the so-called New York channel and passing messages through China, are inadequate for crisis communication. A permanent U.S. diplomatic mission in Pyongyang may be necessary. Thus, there would be this advantage to accept North Korea's proposal to proceed with the 1994 agreement to establish liaison offices. The North Korean Government no doubt would boast that U.S. "recognition" signified recognition of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power. Americans would have to "swallow hard" and let North Korean leaders have their two months of propaganda boastfulness. However, North Korean leaders would face the reality that a U.S. agreement to diplomatic relations was only a symbolic concession and that mounting nuclear warheads on missiles would gain them no material benefits from the United States.

Enhancing military deterrence will be necessary to extend greater U.S. assurances to South Korea and Japan of the credibility of U.S. defense commitments in the face of North Korean nuclear warheads. The Obama Administration has begun to discuss enhanced deterrence with South Korea. Deterrence, to be effective in the new situation of North Korean nuclear warheads, will have to combine concrete military measures and pointed verbal warnings to North Korea of U.S. intent to destroy North Korea if North Korea uses nuclear weapons against U.S. allies.

It seems to me that potential concrete military measures ought to include the return of U.S. heavy bombers to Guam (they were withdrawn in 1991); North Korea greatly feared the B-52 exercises near the Korean peninsula in the 1980s. A more direct U.S. military role in possible North Korean military provocations against South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea is a helpful step already underway. More regular U.S. naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan would send a stronger deterrence message to North Korea. The Obama Administration also should consider supporting any South Korean decision to remove South Korea from the restrictions on its missile ranges imposed by the Missile Control Technology Regime.

However, it seems to me that the recent proposal of the House Armed Services Committee to return U.S. tactical nuclear warheads to South Korea would cause more problems and contribute little to enhancing deterrence. The proposal is contrary to current U.S. war fighting strategy. U.S. military commanders in Korea have stated since 2005 that the primary U.S. role in another Korean War would be a naval and air power role; South Korea would have the burden of fighting on the ground along the demilitarized zone. Tactical U.S. nuclear weapons would have the contrary effect of necessitating much larger U.S. ground forces in South Korea. Moreover, North Korea today is unlikely to launch a full-scale invasion of South Korea, given the deterioration of its conventional military forces since 1990. The North Korean threat today is the singular military provocation similar to those carried out in 2010 or an infiltration into South Korea of commando teams intended to attack specific South Korean individuals and targets. Tactical nuclear weapons would have little value in either deterring these threats or in dealing with them. Increased U.S. air and naval power would have a greater deterrent impact and application to respond to North Korea's singular provocations.

A U.S. proposal to re-deploy tactical nuclear weapons also would polarize South Korean public and political opinion. A post-denuclearization strategy would be much stronger if South Korean opinion were unified behind an effective alternative strategy. The likely end of denuclearization means the end of Lee Myung-bak's policy of tying South Korea to the U.S. total focus on the nuclear issue. An R.O.K. post- denuclearization strategy should develop proposals on specific issues that would have the best prospect of outcomes favorable to the South Korean Government. One favorable outcome, of course, would be favorable agreements negotiated with North Korea that met R.O.K. goals. A second type of favorable outcome would be an agenda of proposals for negotiations with Pyongyang that had broad appeal to the South Korean public regardless of North Korea's reaction to them.

Some examples of South Korean negotiating proposals that likely would achieve either or both favorable outcomes for the R.O.K. Government: negotiating a North-South boundary line in the Yellow between South Korean-held islands and the North Korean mainland; negotiations to establish commitments by both North Korea and South Korea to limit their missile programs to the restrictions set by the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR); accelerated family reunions with firm schedules; and negotiations over reductions of conventional military forces and pullbacks of forces from the demilitarized zone.

South Korean presidential candidates of both the ruling and opposition parties have signaled that they will revise President Lee's policies toward North Korea. President Lee should lay out this kind of agenda to influence public opinion favorably and thus influence his successor as it becomes increasingly apparent that denuclearization of North Korea is a policy of few positive returns.

1 The author is an ICAS Fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS). From 1966 until 2010, he served as Specialist in Asian Affairs with the U.S. Congressional Research Service. He currently also is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is an Adjunct Fellow with the Institute of National Security Strategy in Seoul, Korea.

This page last updated May 30, 2012 jdb