In putting missile talks with North Korea on hold, the Bush administration has won plaudits for taking a stronger and more realistic stand toward a dangerous regime.
But the reason the administration gave for its hesitance - concern that the North would cheat on any agreement - is based not on pragmatism but on a misunderstanding of the importance of verification. An agreement ending North Korea's missile development and exports would be a boon for US security, and the inability to fully guarantee North Korea's compliance does not make a deal imprudent or dangerous.
North Korea is an impoverished state with no hope of prevailing over the United States in a protracted conflict. But it does have a relatively advanced missile program that some fear could produce an intercontinental ballistic missile within a few years capable of reaching parts of the US - possibly delivering a chemical or biological weapon. North Korea has therefore become the rallying cry for supporters of a national missile defense, but it has also become the focus of diplomatic efforts aimed at easing the potential threat.
Avoiding treaties with a party that has proved untrustworthy is common sense. But by all accounts North Korea has adhered to the one real deal it has with the US: the 1994 Agreed Framework, which stopped the North's nuclear weapons program. North Korea also has kept its 1999 pledge not to flight-test missiles while involved in negotiations on a missile ban with Washington. Such a deal, if it proved to be as successful as the Agreed Framework, would dramatically reduce the "rogue state" threat to the US. Yet the Bush administration is hesitant to proceed.
There may be a number of reasons for this reluctance, including the fact that a stalled North Korean missile program would severely undercut the rationale for a national missile defense, a top White House priority. But the administration's professed concern is that a deal could not be perfectly verified. "We do not have a 100 percent ability to monitor these agreements," one senior administration official lamented. That objection is worth examining at face value.
While it may be smart to approach a North Korean agreement with caution, it is a mistake to make 100 percent verifiability a prerequisite. Not only is absolute verification impossible, it is unnecessary. Strong verification is an essential component of any arms-control treaty, but the fact that there may be some uncertainty about complete compliance needs to be balanced against the benefits of an agreement - even if it is not perfectly implemented.
Verification has been an obstacle that opponents have thrown up in front of almost all arms-control agreements, including the chemical and biological weapons conventions, the treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the START agreements to slash US and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles, and most recently the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
But despite perennial fears of what would happen if others cheated - indeed, despite the fact that other states have cheated - no arms-control agreement has ever resulted in a loss of US security. There are two reasons for this. First, the type of cheating that can slip through a verification net is usually not the type that confers a significant advantage to the cheater. Second, in certain types of agreements, cheating - even gross cheating - may be unwanted, but its cost is no greater than that of not having signed the agreement. If an agreement does not require us to give up any capability or potential advantage, then we are no more vulnerable with it than without it.
This would be the case with a deal to get rid of North Korea's missiles. According to reports of the negotiations conducted by the Clinton administration, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, was willing to give up all missiles with a range greater than 300 miles and discontinue all missile exports in exchange for $1 billion of annual food and fuel aid. Such a deal could end the world's most advanced rogue- state missile program, but it does not have even the potential to make the US less secure.
The agreement's verification provisions - even if they were not perfect - would still give us inspection tools we do not currently have and therefore give us a greater chance of discovering proscribed behavior. Furthermore, an agreement would characterize missile development and export as "cheating," as opposed to simply unwanted conduct, thereby giving us a greater ability to leverage international pressure if needed. And if North Korea egregiously violated the terms of an agreement and we found ourselves facing an imminent threat, we could fall back on the significant military presence we have in the region.
Finally, it should be remembered that there would be nothing in a deal to stop development of a national missile defense. Consequently, proponents of missile defense need not be opponents of an agreement with North Korea.
In pursuing an agreement with North Korea, we should expect and demand compliance, and we should work with all the tools at our disposal to verify it to the greatest degree possible. But the Bush administration should realize that the risk of North Korea not fully complying with a missile agreement is far less serious than that posed by an unconstrained North Korean missile program.
J. Peter Scoblic is editor of Arms Control Today.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor