Stanford University researchers issued a call last week to the Obama administration for a new policy toward nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in “Activating a North Korea Policy,” an article published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Robert Carlin, a former top North Korea analyst at the CIA and the State Department, and John Lewis, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute, authored the article.
The plea comes just as North Korea has signaled a willingness to discuss its nuclear weapons program with envoys from China, the United States and the United Nations. Carlin’s and Lewis’s piece invites the Obama administration to shift away from a hard-line strategy toward Pyongyang and use the current period of relative calm to pursue a strategy of engagement.
Last year, North Korea defied the international community by launching its first nuclear test since 2006, sparking an international outcry and jeopardizing the already fragile international nonproliferation framework. North Korea is currently estimated to have between six and 10 plutonium-based nuclear weapons.
North Korea also heightened tension with the United States when it sentenced two American journalists to 12 years in prison last year, though the journalists were eventually released after a visit from former President Clinton in August.
For Carlin, as well as for Lewis, who has visited North Korea more than 15 times since 1986, any recent tensions should not drive policy determinations.
“Washington appears to be suffering from severe amnesia,” Carlin said in an interview with The Daily. Paradoxically, he said, a successful 1994 agreement that took significant steps toward a non-nuclear North Korea is being used by Washington as a justification for a hard-line policy demanding nothing less than total denuclearization.
Carlin highlighted the period from 1994 to 2000 as one of successful talks between the United States and North Korea: the North Koreans agreed to discontinue the construction of two large nuclear reactors and decrease their production of the fissile material used in nuclear weapons.
Early last decade, however, the North Koreans were accused by the Bush administration of violating the 1994 Agreed Framework, resulting in North Korea’s departure from the agreement. Carlin claims that the extreme focus Washington places on the failure of this agreement is an oversimplification that hinders the Obama administration in its ability to craft a coherent and realistic policy for the eventual denuclearization of North Korea.
“The Agreed Framework was successful in many ways,” Carlin said. “Both sides learned to strengthen the foundations for a process that could meet their respective needs. Why wouldn’t we want a deal of this kind again?”
He and Lewis further argue that the current shape of sanctions is not accomplishing much to advance the goal of a non-nuclear North Korea.
“We’re not trying to say the sanctions policy should be completely altered,” Carlin said. “It should be refined as the diplomatic process starts to gain traction.”
“Given how China has ramped up its trade with North Korea, what can we really expect sanctions to accomplish?” Carlin added.
Carlin suspects that the Americans did not design any genuine “exit strategy” for sanctions, which could be employed as the North Koreans move closer to the American position.
Although the U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, has started to hold informal talks with the North Koreans, Lewis and Carlin warned that this move will ultimately be fruitless unless Washington adjusts its rigid stance toward the country.
“All we have done in the past year is give[n] the North Koreans free reign,” Carlin said.