Over the weekend, the Bush administration removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. In exchange, North Korea agreed not to resume reprocessing plutonium at a facility in the city of Yongbyon — something it had threatened to do — and to allow international inspectors, which it had expelled from the site a few weeks earlier, to return.
The Bush administration had in recent weeks also been demanding that North Korea allow inspections of other sites suspected of nuclear-weapons-related activity. (The U.S. is suspicious in particular that the regime is operating a secret uranium-enrichment program.) But in the end U.S. negotiators dropped these demands, settling for the North’s promise to consider such inspections on a case-by-case basis.
Defenders of the delisting say that the Bush administration could not have extracted greater concessions from North Korea, and that rejecting this deal would have meant scuppering the entire February 2007 agreement in which North Korea putatively agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, the resumption of economic aid, and the eventual normalization of ties to the U.S. So let’s ask: How bad a thing would scuppering that agreement have been?
Answering this question requires us to step back and look at the big strategic picture. The chief things that worried us about North Korea — the things the 2007 deal was supposed to address — were: that it had tested a nuclear weapon and possessed several more; that it was reprocessing plutonium at Yongbyon; that probably it was secretly enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium apart from whatever was happening at Yonbyon, whose nuclear reactor was about to reach the end of its useful life anyway; and that it had an aggressive program to build and test ballistic missiles. The U.N. Security Council had approved moderately punitive sanctions against the regime; more punishingly, the U.S. Treasury Department had managed to freeze North Korea out of the international financial system through sanctions of its own.
Enter the 2007 deal. Sanctions are lifted and North Korea’s banks are unfrozen. Aid shipments resume. North Korea retains its nuclear arsenal. Israel’s air force destroys a nuclear reactor under construction in Syria, and it becomes apparent that the reactor was being built with North Korean help. North Korea closes down the Yongbyon reactor, but refuses to allow the kind of inspections that would determine whether other, secret facilities are in operation. It continues to test missiles (some within the past week, after its brief expulsion of inspectors from Yongbyon). And now, in exchange for its removal from the U.S. list of terror sponsors, it promises to consider inspections on a case-by-case basis.
A deal is worth salvaging only if it is a good deal to begin with. Looking at this one, it’s hard to conclude that the U.S. has gained more than it has given. The concessions we have made — particularly the resumption of aid and the lifting of sanctions — are of great consequence to the highly unstable North Korean regime, and have significantly reduced our leverage. The only real concession we’ve gotten in return is the closing of Yonbgyon — which, as we noted above, was near the end of its life anyway.
The issues that matter most to us — the fate of the existing nuclear arsenal, the implementation of a verification mechanism that ensures North Korea is honoring its end of the bargain — have been tabled. The regime has every reason to want to keep things that way, and feels no significant pressure to compromise further. What we’ll likely see is more of the pattern that was on display over the past few weeks: North Korea throws a temper tantrum (kicking out inspectors, firing a few missiles) after which we offer some concrete concession in exchange for a general statement of good intentions.
The hard truth is that we got a bad deal. Nothing this weekend changed that.