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Engaging North Korea

By Jimmy Carter

The New York Times
October 27, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

In June 1994, the North Koreans had expelled inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and were threatening to process spent fuel -- from a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor in Yongbyon -- into plutonium. It was clear that war might break out on the Korean peninsula. The United Nations Security Council was being urged by the United States to impose severe sanctions on North Korea. There was a general consensus, shared by American military experts, that the combined forces of South Korea and the United States could defeat North Korea with overwhelming power. But it was almost inevitable that severe damage would be done to Seoul and much of the fighting would take place in its streets. The American military commander in South Korea estimated that total casualties would exceed those of the Korean War.

It was the policy of the United States to reject any direct talks with North Korean leaders. Responding to a standing invitation from North Korean President Kim Il Sung and with the approval of President Bill Clinton, I went to Pyongyang and helped to secure an agreement that North Korea would cease its nuclear program at Yongbyon and permit I.A.E.A. inspectors to return to the site to assure that the spent fuel was not reprocessed. In return, the United States and our allies subsequently assured the North Koreans that there would be no nuclear threat to them, that a supply of fuel oil would be provided to replace the power lost by terminating the Yongbyon nuclear program and that two modern nuclear plants would also be provided, with their fuel supplies to be monitored by international inspectors. Since then, the spent fuel at Yongbyon has continued to be monitored, but the two replacement nuclear plants have not been built and the United States has assumed what the North Koreans consider a belligerent attitude toward them. More seriously, Pyongyang has announced that it has acquired a source of enriched uranium and is developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. If true, this is a gross violation of previous agreements and a threat to peace in the region.

It is not clear if the North Koreans are bluffing, actually have a nuclear program or have yet produced any nuclear explosives. It is clear that the world community cannot permit North Korea to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

South Korea and Japan are calling for continuing negotiations. China's position has not yet been clarified. The United States, in effect, faces a choice very similar to that in 1994: whether to move toward a military confrontation or accept North Korea's offer to resolve the nuclear problem based on the easing of tension between our two countries.

Kim Il Sung promised me that he would have full diplomatic discussions with Kim Young Sam, then president of South Korea, and arrangements were made for such a summit meeting. The North Korean leader died shortly thereafter. His son, Kim Jong Il, and President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea later arranged talks. Some progress has been made between the North Koreans and both Japan and South Korea in recent months, but similar efforts by President Clinton terminated with his administration.

What is needed on the Korean peninsula is an end to more than a half-century of "armistice" and the consummation of a comprehensive and permanent peace agreement. The success of strong diplomacy is still a possibility, with it being crucial that the United States play a constructive role. The framework for an agreement still exists and includes some elements that must be confirmed by mutual actions combined with unimpeded international inspections. First, North Korea should forgo any nuclear weapons program and the two Koreas should proceed with good-faith talks. The United States may then move toward normal relations with North Korea. The basic premises of the agreed framework of 1994 must be honored, with North Korea, Japan, South Korea, the United States and China cooperating. Finally, international tensions should be reduced through step-by-step demilitarization on the border between the two Koreas.

There is, of course, still the option of war instead of peace talks. It would be devastating and probably unnecessary.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta and won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

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