Politics & Policy

North Korea: Getting to “Yes”?

Following in Clinton's footsteps.

“North Korea agrees to give up nuclear program.”

Haven’t we been here before?

I was skeptical when I read reports of the draft accord reached at the Six Party talks in Beijing, in which North Korea has agreed in principle to end its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for economic aid, security guarantees, and light-water nuclear reactor. In the first place, this has been Pyongyang’s basic position since December 2003. After two years of effort, our negotiators seem to have beaten the North Koreans down to accepting what they originally proposed. This is the art of diplomacy–agreeing to your adversary’s terms, but taking credit for the deal.

More to the point, the new draft accord sounds uncomfortably like the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration. At the time is was heralded as a great step forward for peace and nonproliferation, but in practice the agreement provided the cover for the North Korans to pursue their current nuclear programs. When North Korean violations were uncovered in 2002, a crisis developed that led Pyongyang to expel the IAEA inspectors, begin openly converting spent fuel rods into weapons-grade material, and start claiming to have an existing nuclear-weapons capability.

It took awhile even to get the North Koreans to the bargaining table, and there were several years of false starts after they did. So after all that effort we seem to have come full circle back to the Agreed Framework. Proponents of the new agreement disagree, and note that the Clinton-era document mandated that North Korea “freeze” its weapons program, while the new draft accord calls for “dismantling.” Of course, in 1994 there were no nuclear weapons to dismantle so that is not much of a distinction.

Personally, I am skeptical that the North Koreans have working nuclear weapons. In April 2003 they claimed through unofficial channels to have one weapon, and said they would soon prove it. In October 2003 the North Koreans said they would soon “physically open their nuclear deterrent to the public.” In January 2004 they allegedly showed their nuclear deterrent to a U.S. inspection delegation. Current speculation is that they have at least two weapons, maybe more. (One an exuberant North Korean general said they had hundreds.) But they have never proved their capabilities by undertaking a nuclear test. They have threatened to on various occasions, but never quite got to the point where they actually lit one off. They are not shy about demonstrating their technology when they have it. When the North Koreans launched the Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile in 1998 they sent the whole North Pacific on alert. I think North Korea should confirm they have the capability before we give them any deal. After all, we may have been deluding ourselves, and the North Koreans could have been feeding that impression through various forms of disinformation. We know how speculative WMD intelligence can be; don’t we deserve it to ourselves to demand proof?

Regardless of what the North Koreans are promising to give up, any such deal founders on verification and compliance. As the president said, “The question is, over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement.” Darn right that’s the question. The North Koreans did not adhere the last time, so why expect them to now? More to the point, how can we prove whether they are complying or not? History is littered with flawed arms-control agreements that have foundered on inadequate verification means. And the arms-control establishment dislikes verification anyway–too messy, too complicated. They like hammering out the deal, not managing the details of enforcing it. That attitude is what got us into this mess in the first place.

President Bush had it right in his 2003 State of the Union address when he said, “Throughout the 1990s, the United States relied on a negotiated framework to keep North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons. We now know that that regime was deceiving the world, and developing those weapons all along. And today the North Korean regime is using its nuclear program to incite fear and seek concessions. America and the world will not be blackmailed.” But we can still make another foolish bargain like the one we made in 1994. And when this one collapses the cleanup might be a bit messier.

The only certain solution to the WMD question on the Korean peninsula is regime change. The Clinton administration claimed that the reason the Agreed Framework was such an obviously bad deal was that they thought it would not matter; they expected North Korea to melt down before it could be fully implemented. Maybe some policymakers in the current administration believe the same thing. However, if North Korea is on its way into the dustbin of history then the last thing we should be doing is reaching agreements with them to provide economic aid and energy assistance. We might inadvertently stave off the inevitable, and give Kim Jong Il’s regime a new lease on life. With democracy on the march around the world, this is not the time to get to “yes” with one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes on earth.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.


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