Of all the exchanges in the first presidential debate, at the University of Miami Thursday night, the one I found most perplexing was over the North Korean nuclear issue. Senator John Kerry seems to have an unremitting fixation on solving all the outstanding issues on the peninsula in one grand diplomatic swoop. “I want bilateral talks which put all of the issues, from the armistice of 1952, the economic issues, the human-rights issues, the artillery disposal issues, the DMZ issues, and the nuclear issues on the table,” he said. In all other areas of foreign policy, Kerry counsels multilateralism–in fact the only concrete plan he seems to have regarding any international issue at all is to “have a summit,” one of the ways we can “pass the global test.” But with respect to North Korea, the senator wants the U.S. to go it alone, and to scrap the ongoing six-party talks. To be fair, Kerry says that they would continue concurrently with bilateral talks, but considering that the only reason the North Koreans showed up at the multilateral talks at all was because they were denied the bilateral talks they had been demanding, it’s hard to see how this follows. Thus, Kerry’s plan would hand Pyongyang an effortless victory, and undo years of solid work.
But let’s back up a bit. The issue begins with the 1994 Agreed Framework, a fatally flawed document that was supposed to limit North Korean nuclear-weapons development but still allow them to pursue nuclear power. The verification elements of the Agreed Framework were sorely inadequate–Kerry may place great faith in, for example, having TV cameras in nuclear facilities, but without robust inspection (and, as history has shown, even with inspection) confidence-building gestures such as this are worthless. By March 1999, the Department of Energy reported that North Korea was working on uranium-enrichment techniques. (Note for those who think President Bush does not command detail, he was right in correcting Kerry’s claim that the North Koreans were using plutonium.) The CIA reported in April 2001 that North Korea had probably constructed two nuclear weapons in recent years–that is, not during President Bush’s watch, as Kerry claimed, but earlier. The next month the North Koreans threatened to pull out of the Agreed Framework, and in June 2001 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors complained that North Korea was not allowing them sufficient access to do their jobs. A year later, after the IAEA could not verify North Korean compliance with the Agreed framework (because of DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) intransigence), President Bush denied North Korea certification. By December 2002, North Korea had ejected the IAEA inspectors completely, and in January 2003, they pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile Pyongyang was demanding that the United States engage them in bilateral talks as the only way to solve the crisis. They threatened war unless they got their way. Nevertheless, patient diplomacy and presidential resolve held firm, and eventually the DPRK relented. The first six-party talks were in August, 2003.
Kerry’s suggestion of bilateral talks covering the entire universe of U.S.-North Korean issues would be extremely detrimental to U.S. security interests. First, it would alienate South Korea, and elevate North Korea to the status of an equal partner with the United States on issues of the Korean peninsula. China, Japan, and Russia would also be left outside, countries with legitimate security interests in the region–countries that in fact make up the region. Having so many issues on the table would give the North Korean negotiators endless opportunities for procedural mischief–that is, after they have exhausted the U.S. team with the debate over what shape the table should be. One might ask where in our history of bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans the Kerry team looks for optimism. The Korean War settlement, which only came after President Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons? The Pueblo Incident, in which Pyongyang humiliated the United States for almost a year until the return of the ship’s crew? Or the Agreed Framework itself, which was intended to prevent North Korean nuclear armament but in fact was what made it possible?
I doubt many people were paying attention to this part of the debate, but I understood why the president looked so exasperated.