Special Report

Appeasing North Korea

What took the President so long?

By 2.19.07

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There is a sense of deja vu on the Korean peninsula. American and North Korean negotiators shaking hands. An agreement for disarmament and peace in Northeast Asia.

That was the promise of several past accords, most notably the Agreed Framework, drafted by the U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1994. Now Washington and Pyongyang have inked another disarmament plan, known as the "Joint Statement."

The Bush administration argues that this plan is different from the Agreed Framework. It's formally multilateral, but the largest financial contributors to the older arrangement were Japan and South Korea.

The Joint Statement commits the DPRK to freeze nuclear operations and eventually shut down its nuclear reactor and reprocessing facilities -- just like before. Pyongyang will be rewarded with energy assistance, diplomatic recognition, and trade ties, as with the Agreed Framework. The main difference, an important one, is that more DPRK performance must precede Western aid.

Perhaps Pyongyang is serious this time. Moreover, the Western investment is modest: just 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil before North Korea is to shut down its Yongbyon reactor, within 60 days. If Pyongyang attempts to welch or renegotiate, it should become obvious soon.

HOWEVER, THERE ARE NUMEROUS long-term pitfalls. The deal provides for access by personnel from the International Atomic Energy Agency "to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications as agreed between the IAEA and the DPRK." Will the North actually accept intrusive inspections and not attempt to cheat?

Lead U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill has talked of "complete denuclearization," but the Joint Statement speaks of "abandonment" and "disablement," not "dismantlement." That could be mere semantics -- or allow the DPRK to work to preserve its nuclear infrastructure. After the plan's release, the North Korean media spoke of agreeing to the "temporary suspension" of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Moreover, the North is to list "all of its nuclear programs" that "would be abandoned." The Joint Statement lists plutonium extraction, but not the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program that Pyongyang denies possessing.

The new accord commits Japan and North Korea to resolving their differences. That may be a tough task, and not just because of DPRK intransigence. Japan so far refuses to contribute to the energy aid package because of the unresolved North Korean kidnapping of scores of Japanese citizens over the years.

Will the North turn over all of its plutonium and any weapons it has developed, the quantities of which Washington can only guess? The Joint Statement speaks of "denuclearization," but does not explicitly mention existing stockpiles or demand total disarmament.

Nothing was said about the light water nuclear reactors that the DPRK was to receive under the Agreed Framework. The September 2005 agreement, which underlies the Joint Statement, envisions discussion of that issue "at the appropriate time." Alas, the U.S. and North Korea might have different definitions of "appropriate."

Finally, the latest accord creates five working groups. Their plans are to be "implemented as a whole in a coordinated manner." Even if Pyongyang is committed to the agreement, these multiple talks may be both torturous and tortuous.

For these reasons and more many analysts are skeptical. Some of the president's allies are more hostile. Former UN envoy John Bolton complains that the Joint Statement "sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world."

Nevertheless, there's still a good argument for the arrangement. No deal would ever be possible without giving the North money and respect. Even a freeze is better than continued North Korean advances. The Joint Statement should be viewed as another modest step in a long, continuing process.

Most important, other options are limited. Military action would risk triggering a full-scale war. Effective sanctions would require the active assistance of China and South Korea. Regime change is obviously desirable but not readily achievable. Doing nothing ensures the North's development of a significant nuclear arsenal. In a world of second bests, the negotiations may have produced the least bad alternative.

YET IF THE PRESIDENT VIEWS the latest plan as a solution to the excruciatingly painful North Korean nuclear crisis, one has to ask: what took the administration so long? The latest accord follows the Agreed Framework in practice as well as in spirit, and almost certainly could have been inked years ago. Despite the president's insistence on Chinese involvement, the plan actually took form in bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks in Berlin last month -- the very direct conversations which the administration refused to conduct for nearly six years. John Bolton was characteristically blunt: "This is the same thing that the State Department was prepared to do six years ago. If we are going to cut this deal now, it's amazing we didn't cut it back then."

What has the administration accomplished since then? When President George W. Bush took office, the DPRK was thought to possess enough plutonium to make one or two atomic bombs. Analysts figure the North's arsenal today at as many as 13 potential weapons. The DPRK also has been testing missiles, raising the possibility that some day North Korea could target America.

Even if the administration was justified in dumping the Agreed Framework, officials were criminally negligent in having prepared no coherent follow-up. The administration's recurring fulminations against Kim Jong-il were charming after a fashion, but completely ineffective. North Korea demonstrated what it thought of the views of the "international community" when it conducted a nuclear test last October.

Another price of spending six years getting an agreement is the substantial debt owed the People's Republic of China (PRC). Much credit for the Joint Statement belongs to China, the official host of the six-party talks. For the last six years the administration has been emphasizing a multilateral approach. It has alternately attempted to shame, persuade, and beg Beijing to bring the DPRK to the negotiating table. The U.S. also has pushed the PRC to pressure the North to agree to yield up its nuclear weapons in the ensuing talks. Beijing appears to have delivered what Washington desired.

China pressed North Korea to join the sporadic six-party talks. After Pyongyang's nuclear test, Beijing agreed to limited sanctions, a significant change in policy. Moreover, the PRC acted on Washington's request to crack down on the Banco Delta Asia bank in Macau, which handled North Korean money. In short, if allied persuasion or outside pressure was the cause of North Korea's agreement, it was persuasion by and pressure from China.

David Zweig of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told the San Francisco Chronicle: "China clearly brought the North Koreans to the table and made it possible for the Bush administration to make the necessary concessions to get an agreement." Similarly, argued Zhu Feng of Beijing University: China left the DPRK with "no choice but to show increasing flexibility."

Indeed, both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly lauded the PRC's role. "Perhaps the most significant voice that had been added to the table was China," said the president.

WASHINGTON UNDOUBTEDLY IS GRATEFUL for the PRC's assistance. But Beijing likely desires more than abstract gratitude. The more geopolitical favors it called in to win the DPRK's agreement, the more geopolitical favors China likely expects from Washington.

Indeed, the recent agreement is just the beginning. There are numerous decision points where the North might -- in fact, is likely to -- balk, threaten to quit, demand additional concessions, and more. The U.S. will be expecting, or at least hoping for, China's continuing assistance to keep the accord on track. Although Beijing has a stake in the agreement's success, a rupture would embarrass Washington far more.

The Bush administration may not have formally offered a quid pro quo. Even so, the PRC's support has created an expectation of American reciprocity. That could mean less pressure on human rights, fewer complaints over exchange rate and trade practices, increased pressure on Taiwan to dampen independence sentiment, or less enthusiasm for a more activist Japanese foreign policy. A failure to deliver could result in less Chinese, and ultimately North Korean, cooperation in the future.

The DPRK nuclear crisis has been boiling for more than a decade. There are several reasons why Pyongyang might desire to build a nuclear weapon. With the only alternatives military strikes, economic war, bribes, or sweet reason, the new accord might offer the best shot for success. But had the administration offered the same terms six years ago, we probably would know whether Pyongyang was serious about abandoning its nuclear course. If so, North Korea would possess fewer potential nuclear weapons. And Washington would owe China fewer geopolitical favors.

Will the Joint Statement work any better than previous accords with North Korea? We will soon find out. Just days after the agreement was signed, Pyongyang announced that it will maintain "full combat mobilization" to deter attack by the U.S. and DPRK officials praised the nation's nuclear weapons. But even if the plan holds, the price of administration procrastination has been very high.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).