The 1994 agreement, with the participation of South Korea and Japan, included a pledge by the United States not to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and to supply it with two modern light water reactors. The agreement was significant in envisioning long-term and normal relations between the United States and North Korea.
To that end, confidence-building measures were initiated, including cooperative efforts to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers who were killed during the Korean War, visitations between families in North and South Korea, and the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The death of North Korea's Kim II Sung halted other contemplated peace initiatives, such as withdrawal of offensive weapons close to the demilitarized zone and proportionate reductions of armed forces by North and South Korea. Finally, the negotiators hoped that the Agreed framework would lead toward the implementation of the general policy adopted in 1992 by South Korea and popularly known as the Sunshine Policy -- of reunifying North and
South Korea -- which had garnered wide public support in South Korea.
The Bush administration has sharply shifted the direction of U.S. policy in this region. Instead of a policy that seeks the peaceful reunification of the two nations, we now have a bellicose policy that seems designed to antagonize the North Korean government, a regime with paranoid fears and headed by a reclusive leader -- Kim Jong Il.
It is obvious that our new policy entirely conflicts with the aspirations of South Korea, which has devoted the past 10 years to cultivating the Sunshine Policy. The administration's new policy also runs counter to America's long-term interests in Southeast Asia. For example, it has torpedoed Japan's overtures toward North Korea to bring about normalization of relations between the two countries and has increased tensions throughout the region at a time when the focus should be on fighting terrorism.
All the loose talk about an "axis of evil," our readiness to fight two wars simultaneously, about building a missile defense against North Korea, our ridiculing their leadership while suspending direct contacts, have set the stage for a confrontation with absolutely no exit strategy in sight.
However flawed the Agreed Framework was, American-North Korean relations improved, a foundation that the Bush administration should have built on. That North Korea has been acquiring enriched uranium in violation of the 1994 agreement is certainly unacceptable, and this must be stopped. However, its actions cannot be taken completely out of context, as if we have done everything right and North Korea alone is the culprit. And we cannot act as if the crisis is strictly bilateral, and other countries, especially South Korea and Japan, are peripheral, when they are directly threatened by a nuclear conflagration or, for that matter, any warfare in the region.
The Korean Peninsula is not the same as it was even 10 years ago. Major geopolitical winds have swept Southeast Asia. Russia and China, North Korea's two most powerful neighbors, have far greater interest in building their market economies with our help and support than in siding with a communist regime -- a dying order that is out of touch with reality. South Korea wants to remain our ally, but not at the price of becoming a tool of an American foreign policy that prevents it from achieving its dream of unification.
South Koreans view their future national security and economic development as linked directly to the North. Even before this crisis, they wanted to see the gradual withdrawal of our forces. The Sunshine Policy, pursued by the outgoing and the incoming South Korean administrations, is the result of a long-term and desperate need to end a conflict that exhausts national resources while posing a constant threat to South Korea's existence.
Although concerned with the implications of Chinese regional hegemony and thus in favor of a continued American presence in the region, Japan is also equally committed to thawing its relations with North Korea and preventing it from acting recklessly out of desperation.
Now that the Agreed Framework has been rendered inoperable, restoring it, as demanded by the Bush administration, is shortsighted. Rather, we must seek a new, comprehensive, and permanent agreement that must first meet the national requirements of the two Koreas while fostering peace and security throughout the region.
Every player in the region -- Russia, China, Japan, and both Koreas -- has a stake in the success of such a new framework. We must not stand in the way of reunification, and we must encourage the Korean peoples to chart their own destiny.
The United States ought to accept open-ended negotiations with the participation of Russia, China, Japan, and, of course, South Korea, and put everything on the table in dealing with North Korea. This includes: the need for internationally verifiable and permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a substantial reduction of military forces by both sides, a firm U.S. declaration of non-aggression against North Korea, an agreement on normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea, a substantial economic aid package to alleviate the dire conditions in North Korea, eventual reunification of both Koreas, and the phased withdrawal of our forces from the Peninsula.
Surely these are difficult and complicated issues and made more so by an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and lack of trust. To reach an agreement, therefore, would require phased implementation, based on reciprocal measures designed to insure full and verifiable compliance of each step before the next one is taken.
Perhaps it is useful to recall our experience in Vietnam. After we have sacrificed the lives of 54,000 U.S. soldiers, with six times as many injured, and at a cost of tens of billions of dollars (not to speak of Vietnamese losses, estimated at 1 million dead), we left South Vietnam to the whims of the North under the guise of Vietnamization, knowing full well what the outcome would be. Today a unified Vietnam enjoys normal relations with us; in fact, we have been in the forefront in helping the Vietnamese rebuild.
In invoking the example of Vietnam, I am not suggesting that we should abandon South Korea. But the analogy is clear in at least one respect: North Korea is despairing and must find a way out of its disastrous economic situation, and they, like the Vietnamese after our pullout, need our help and support. We must lead by seizing the opportunity and seek, once and for all, an end to the more than five-decade-old conflict, especially in the wake of the favorable and dramatic geopolitical changes that have swept the region.
(Alon Ben-Meir is Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York, and a professor of International Relations at New York University.)