When exactly did Kim Jong Il become trustworthy?
That’s the question one asks in reaction to the agreement announced Tuesday on North Korea’s nuclear program. According to the terms of the deal, North Korea will close its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil. That’s Phase One. In Phase Two, the North will irreversibly disable and seal the reactor, for a reward of an additional 950,000 tons of oil. The U.S. has promised to discuss normalizing relations with North Korea, and to begin the process of removing it from the State Department’s list of terror sponsors. And then, one fine day, we are all to sit down and figure out what Pyongyang will do with the nukes it has already built.
If this sounds eerily familiar, there’s good reason. In 1994, Bill Clinton — with some dubious help from Jimmy Carter — struck a bargain with North Korea known as the Agreed Framework. The terms back then were largely the same: Pyongyang would get energy assistance (a light-water nuclear reactor and fuel oil), as well as the eventual normalization of relations, in exchange for cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency and ending its military nuclear program. There was much misty-eyed talk of diplomacy’s beauty, as now. Then came the rude awakening, midway through George W. Bush’s first term, when we learned that Kim had been cheating on the agreement almost from the start, and was well on his way to owning a nuclear arsenal.
It’s going to be different this time, we are promised, because the deal is multilateral. (In addition to the U.S. and North Korea, it includes China, South Korea, and Russia. Japan, the other member of the six-party talks, hasn’t signed on yet — primarily because North Korea hasn’t made full amends for its troublesome Cold War habit of kidnapping Japanese citizens.) The logic goes that Kim is less likely to stick it to us if this requires simultaneously sticking it to the Chinese. Maybe so: Kim knows he can’t survive without the diplomatic support and material aid his dictatorship gets from Beijing. Which is simply to say that Kim looks out for himself.
The catch is that there may come a day when he thinks abandoning the deal is in his interests. North Korea has spent the better part of a decade on the brink of collapse. Kim has stayed alive by injecting just enough funds into his military to keep it propping him up even as the rest of the country starves. Some of these funds come from workaday crimes like drug trafficking and money laundering. But the big stuff is foreign aid procured by extortion: build a few bombs, blow one up, make an unexpected feint toward niceness, and name your conditions. Next thing you know, $400 million worth of oil is headed your way. There’s no obvious reason Kim will honor the latest agreement, given that he renounced the 1994 pact, and announced his change of heart on a 2005 promise to abandon his nuclear program by detonating an atomic bomb.
If the new deal had required North Korea to close its reactor and destroy its existing nuclear arsenal before receiving any aid, it would have been worth signing. But of course Kim hasn’t promised to dismantle the existing bombs, precisely because they are both the best guarantor of his power and his strongest leverage against us. Anyone hoping that it will be a simple matter to prize the bombs out of his hands even if he does shut down the reactor, or that the “international community” will exert much pressure to make him do so, should plan to be disappointed. Not that we could verify the destruction of the nuclear arsenal in any case: North Korea is believed to have an extensive network of caves and tunnels in which it could hide weapons or weapons components from inspectors.
The longstanding debate about North Korea in U.S. diplomatic circles has been whether to attempt reforming the regime through negotiations and incentives or forcing its eventual collapse through sanctions and isolation. After Kim’s nuclear test, the Bush administration moved forcefully in the latter direction. Much to everyone’s surprise, it managed to bring the U.N. Security Council along with it. Kim’s promise now to behave himself may well have been an act of desperation as the sanctions began to bite. This was no time to loosen their jaws. On the bright side, we’ve won a promise from a liar.