Newsweek 09 October 1999

The Method to the Madness

By Leon V. Sigal

Sure it sounds crazy, but North Korea has a clear record of brandishing missiles to press for peace, not war North Korea's threat to test a new ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States was greeted in Washington as the raving of a renegade state. But there is method to Pyongyang's madness and the trick, as a senior American official once put it to me, is to pick the "nuggets of reason" from the "ocean of vitriol." For more than a decade North Korea has been seeking to end its lifelong enmity with the United States, often delivering peace offers wrapped in threats designed to scare Washington to the table. That's exactly what is happening now: Pyongyang is making missile threats in hopes of bargaining its missiles away for something better. Washington is wise to pursue the offer, no matter how crazy it sounds. This has been done before. In 1992 North Korea quietly offered to mothball a reactor capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons in exchange for reactors that are easier to control. Washington ignored the offer until two years later, when nuclear tensions came perilously close to triggering war on the Korean Peninsula. Talks began. The Americans occasionally found themselves in red-faced shouting matches with the North Koreans, but discovered they could do business in the end. The famous result was the landmark 1994 nuclear deal known as the Agreed Framework. Few know it was built on a North Korean idea. Now Pyongyang says it is willing to go further, ending missile exports and development if the United States will end the embargo it imposed during the Korean War and normalize relations. U.S. presidential envoy William Perry is opening the door to this deal, which could bring real reconciliation between former foes.

The main hurdle is skepticism in Congress. Many members are convinced that Pyongyang is bent on acquiring nuclear missiles at any cost, and will "cheat and retreat" from any bargain. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest the skeptics are wrong. In the early 1990s most experts in Washington believed North Korea had already made one or two nuclear weapons and was determined to make more. To do so, Pyongyang would have had to shut down its reactor in order to extract spent fuel and reprocess it into weapons-grade plutonium. We now know that the North had not been reprocessing since 1991, did not shut down its reactor until May 1994 and has allowed international inspectors to monitor the facilities since 1992. In short, North Korea has frozen bombmaking as promised.

Similarly, if North Korea was committed to building ballistic missiles to launch nuclear warheads, it would have been testing missiles for much of the last decade. Instead, Pyongyang has fired off just two ineffectual launches - both out of pique at U.S. reluctance to negotiate. Its only test of the No Dong missile came in May 1993, shortly after the United States pressured Israel to abandon its missile talks with Pyongyang.

Worried about North Korean plans to sell missiles to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, Israel was offering North Korea investment and recognition in return for canceling these sales. After the United States stepped in, North Korea responded by openly testing its missile, before an audience of Iranian officials.

But if a deal with North Korea made sense for Israel, why not with the United States? Such reasoning led the Americans to enter talks on the 1994 nuclear accord. Unfortunately, Pyongyang has since concluded that it froze its nuclear program but got little in return. The construction of two new nuclear reactors is way behind schedule. So are promised shipments of fuel to power North Korea while the reactors are being built. Most important, North Korea had expected a gradual rollback of economic and diplomatic sanctions, which has yet to begin. So what better way to grab U.S. attention than to launch another missile?

By January 1996, having concluded the nuclear deal, Washington began exploring a missile deal with Pyongyang. But it broke off talks that September after a North Korean submarine ran aground in southern waters on a routine spy mission. As tensions mounted, North Koreans began visible preparations for a missile test, only to call it off after talks with U.S. officials in October. It took months before Washington offered some easing of economic sanctions for an end to missile sales and even more for an end to missile tests. North Korea responded that it was willing to negotiate an end to missile sales and development but it underscored its impatience with a threat to resume missile tests. On Aug. 31, Pyongyang launched a three-stage Taepodong I rocket over Japan in an unsuccessful attempt to put a satellite into orbit. That sent shivers through Asia. But cooler heads will recognize this for what it is: a typically crazy Pyongyang invitation to talk, not to fight. A missile deal would ease fears in Asia and open the door to peace in Korea.

Sigal is the author of "Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea," published byPrinceton University Press (1998