SEOUL – The U.S. should promote a “standstill regime” in North Korea aimed at stopping further development of its nuclear program, rather than focus on the unlikely short-term goal of denuclearization, the former U.S. ambassador to South Korea said Tuesday.
Stephen Bosworth, who has served as a special envoy to the North, said the U.S. and South Korea should target something achievable – stability on the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia.
“We have to be candid among ourselves and particularly among our public about what we think we can achieve and how we can verify compliance” with denuclearization by the North, he told reporters in Seoul.
Achieving stability would mean restarting dialogue with the North as a supplement to U.S. and South Korean policies of deterrence, he said.
The goal of the six-party talks, last held in 2008, was “comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” which he said is no longer possible because of the difficulty of monitoring the North’s uranium-enrichment efforts.
Past efforts at diplomacy have been mixed, he acknowledged, stopping the North’s production of plutonium but pushing it toward developing enriched uranium.
“For me, the question of whether to try engagement once again is really easy to answer, because I find that the alternatives to engagement are very unpromising and even dangerous,” he said. Asian nations should work to create opportunities for the North to engage in ways that would allow it to benefit economically and politically. In return, the North would pledge not to develop further nuclear capabilities or do more nuclear testing, he said.
“I have no illusions about the difficulty of negotiating this sort of arrangement,” Bosworth said. “But it’s clear to me, or at least I believe, that simply continuing trying to negotiate on the basis of denuclearization is not going to be very successful.”
The U.S. cannot rely on China, viewed as the North’s key ally, to control the North’s nuclear program.
“China shares the interest of the United States and South Korea and other countries of the region that North Korea should not become a permanent nuclear weapons state,” he said. “However, China is also concerned that too much pressure on North Korea could bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime. China believes that for it, the collapse of the regime would be a very negative geopolitical development.”
Bosworth’s comments come as South Korea, China and possibly Japan could face leadership changes in coming months, in addition to the November elections in the U.S.
“Over the next few months, I would expect that in all capitals in the region, there will be a period of watchful waiting for the elections to be over and then careful study and assessment of where the diplomacy should go,” he said.
North Korea has not become a significant campaign issue in the U.S. “in large measure due to the fact that this is a very difficult problem, and nobody has a ready-made solution to it” aside from consistent diplomacy, he said.
It’s too early to tell whether there will be any significant policy changes under Kim Jong Un, who assumed control of the country after the death of his father in December.