Negotiating with nuclear-armed North Korea

Robert Litwak is vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of international security studies. He is a world renowned expert on totalitarian regimes. According to him, "North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout that would enable its leadership to strike the United States with a nuclear-armed ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile."

In his new book, "Preventing North Korea's Nuclear Breakout," Litwak writes that North Korea is on the verge of moving from a nuclear bomb arsenal estimated to be in the mid-teens to an arsenal that could be as large as 100 warheads, and from missiles that can hit Japan and China to ones that at can cross the Pacific.

In Litwak's view, the U.S. has only three options: bomb, acquiesce or negotiate. He writes, "Bombing North Korea's nuclear and missile sites runs the risk of escalating into a second, possibly nuclear Korean war with over a million casualties.... Alternatively, acquiescing to a breakout means this failed state becomes a major nuclear power with a global reach. So that just leaves negotiating."

Someone with long experience in dealing with North Korean leadership is Mitchell Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Reiss, who once served as an assistant to Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Brent Scowcroft at the National Security Council, become chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an agency responsible for a $6 billion project that was set up to induce North Korea to adhere to its commitment to freeze and ultimately eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

The negotiations were lengthy, and Reiss visited North Korea repeatedly, spending more time negotiating and interacting with high-level North Korean officials than any other American. The project was ultimately abandoned, and North Korea resumed its nuclear weapons development program, but Reiss gained a unique understanding of the forces governing the world's most secretive and intransigent regime.

He explained that contrary to most published reports, the North Koreans are not crazy or irrational. The grandfather and father of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un, were willing to negotiate. They saw the nuclear program as a bargaining chip; Kim Jong-un sees his nuclear weapons as his only insurance policy against regime change.

I asked Reiss, what would be his advice to U.S. negotiators if and when they meet their North Korean counterparts at the negotiating table.

"As with any negotiation, you need to demonstrate patience, resolve and empathy. With the North," he said, "I do not believe it is currently possible to reach any agreement on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, for many reason, a large one being the impossibility of verifying compliance."

But Reiss is not without hope. He recalled some episodes that revealed the underlying humanity of his North Korean counterparts.

"There was almost communal affinity shared between North and South Koreans despite more than half a century of division. I had a glimpse of how the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia could be transformed by finally ending the Korean war," he said.

"At a dinner at our conference center in the North, the North Korean ambassador asked his South Korean counterpart to join him on the dais. He then told a moving story about his life, about how sad he was for the division of the Korean people, and how he hoped that one day his children and grandchildren would be able to play with the children and grandchildren of the South Korean ambassador. It was a magical moment, but all too fleeting."

Then, he added, "Once upon a time, we thought we may able to negotiate our way out of this conflict with North Korea. I am now strongly dubious."

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and amazon.com.

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