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Senator Says North Korea Talks Must Focus On Nukes

By | June 19, 2006

      U.S. negotiators must focus on persuading North Korea to surrender any capabilities to fire nuclear-tipped missiles toward North America, rather than becoming enmeshed in other issues such as counterfeiting of U.S. currency, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.

      Her comments come as U.S. intelligence reports indicate that North Korea may be about to launch an upgraded Taepo Dong-2 missile from a remote site in the northeastern region of the isolated communist nation. Fueling of the missle was complete at press time.

      This missile, long anticipated, would have an intercontinental range capable of striking targets in North America. As well, North Korea has announced it is developing nuclear weapons. Intelligence sources differ as to how many of the devices North Korea already may have produced.

      North Korean moves in this area are a key driving force behind Pentagon acquisition programs for a multi-layered anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system of systems. Leading roles are played by The Boeing Co. [BA] (Airborne Laser system to kill enemy missiles shortly after they launch), Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] (Aegis weapons control and radar systems for sea-based and other ABM programs), Raytheon Co. [RTN] (maker of missiles that intercept enemy ballistic weapons in flight), and others.

      For Murkowski, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this is the issue that Christopher Hill, assistant U.S. secretary of state, should focus on, rather than other matters such as counterfeiting or North Korean firms violating arms nonproliferation rules. “I think right now we are sidetracked” by such issues, she said.

      “The United States must focus … first and foremost on the nonproliferation issue,” Murkowski said before the Asia Society, a think tank founded half a century ago by John D. Rockefeller III to help Americans “understand” Asia. The forum was sponsored by ExxonMobil, a firm with Rockefeller family involvement. The company has substantial interests in Murkowski’s home state.

      She called for “putting the nuclear issue absolutely at the top” of the six-party talks agenda.

      As time passes, “our perception of being vulnerable to nuclear strike” increases, especially as North Korea has more time to develop the Taepo Dong-2, Murkowski observed.

      At the same time, however, this feeling of vulnerability has afflicted South Koreans for decades, she noted. South Korea is involved in the six-party talks with the United States, North Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

      Murkowski noted that without North Korea developing any long-range intercontinental missile capability, South Korea long has been within range of North Korean weapons.

      Thus South Korea views the threat situation differently from the Washington outlook, she said. “There is no longer a shared vision with our South Korea host as to what the threat is,” she said.

      Since North Korea years ago fired a shorter-range missile that flew over Japan before splashing into the Pacific Ocean, Japanese leaders have been highly worried about North Korean military capabilities and intentions.

      The government in Japan “has been under tremendous pressure from their citizens to pressure North Korea on the [arms] reduction issue,” Murkowski said.

      The United States has little trust in North Korean promises, Murkowski said, given a history of North Korea making agreements, then backing out of them later. “We have always seen North Korea waffle on their commitments in the past,” she said.

      At the same time, she said, “North Korea won’t lose face by agreeing unilaterally to demands by” the United States, without gaining some sort of concessions in the deal.

      Despite the unreliability of North Korea to keep its word in agreements, Murkowski still thinks it is well and worthwhile for the United States to continue participating in the six-party talks.

      She also sees potential benefit in further U.S. links and meetings with North Korean counterparts.

      For example, she has been invited to join a “very small group of [U.S.] senators” that might visit North Korea. She has no idea, she said, how the Bush administration might view such a mission.

      She also said it could be worthwhile for Hill to visit Pyongyang, even if only for a dinner meeting.

      China-Korea Forum

      Separately, the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, also plumbed the challenging North Korean conundrum, and examined as well the role China is playing here.

      In a two-and-a-half-hour panel discussion, participants didn’t paint an optimistic picture, or provide any assurances that the isolated regime running North Korea will come around soon to becoming a responsible and constructive player.

      “South Korea is slowly turning its back on the United States,” its long-time ally, and turning toward China, said Sung Yoon Lee, a South Korean citizen who serves with the Korea Institute at Harvard University.

      South Korea also is courting North Korea, hoping for an eventual reuinification of the divided peninsular nation, he said. He termed North Korea “one of the most systematically repressive and failed states,” a reference to the deep poverty and periodic starvation endured by the populace of the isolated communist country.

      He said this is an ill considered move by Seoul. “South Korea should choose its [allies] wisely,” Lee said.

      In so doing, “South Korea should identify who is the genuine partner for peace and democracy, and that is the United States,” he said.

      There is little chance, he said, that the United States or other nations in the six-party talks can “dangle a few carrots” before North Korean negotiators and expect that North Korea will give up its prized nuclear development program.

      “A policy of appeasement” will not work with North Korea, he said.

      But during a question and answer period, Miryang Youn, an official with a South Korean government agency and also a staffer with the Wilson Center, took issue with some of those views.

      It is “not correct [that the] South Korean government is turning its back against the U.S.,” she said, terming the North American nation “a very, very precious ally,” despite the odd anti-American demonstrations by South Koreans.

      She also said that South Korea must pursue peaceful reunification with its northern neighbor, asking, “What can you do otherwise? What can we do now? War?” She indicated that a military strike against North Korea, or an invasion, would be unthinkable.

      Lee agreed with her that “no one wants war,” but said that reconciliation of the north and south is impossible in the way that South Korea pursues it, such as slipping money to people.

      Kirk Larsen, with George Washington University, said if the long-stressed North Korean regime of Kim Jung Il collapses, and the north and south were reunited, South Korea and its immensely wealthy economy would absorb the north.

      But other speakers said that North Korea has seemed about to implode for decades, and hasn’t.

      Larsen observed that the isolated regime can be expected to threaten a walkout from the six-party talks, or to fire another missile, or to take other troubling steps, as a way to pressure other nations to provide it with assistance.

      With no likely solution to the nuclear impasse that North Korea has created, Larsen said the rest of the world is confronted with no easy answers.

      Perhaps, he said, just continuing talks without end might not be all that bad, terming it “the least worst of the alternatives,” even given that endless talks merely provide North Korea with more time to produce nuclear weapons.

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