North Korea’s chief arms negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, is known as “the Smiling Assassin.” Do you suppose the North Koreans use similar grudgingly respectful terms to describe their American counterparts? Somehow I doubt it. Check out the terms of the latest agreement with North Korea. Pyongyang gets $400 million in aid, chiefly in the form of energy, and we ease economic sanctions. In return they agree to begin to give up the means to produce new nuclear weapons, and establish working groups to discuss maybe shutting down their nuclear program at some future date as yet undetermined. They also get to maintain their current nuclear stockpile. The deal is a dramatic diplomatic victory, but unfortunately not for the U.S.
The terms sound suspiciously like the Clinton-era Agreed Framework. The North Koreans wanted light-water nuclear reactors and shipments of heavy oil for heat and power generation. They agreed to move towards normalization of relations and settling outstanding issues. And they agreed to allow nuclear inspectors to make sure they were keeping to the terms of the deal. Same now as 13 years ago. Proponents of the current approach observe that the 1994 agreement only sought to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program, not dismantle it. Of course, back then North Korea did not have as much to dismantle.
Simply making a deal with North Korea guarantees nothing. For example the Agreed Framework provided the cover for North Korea to secretly begin to develop its nuclear capability. By 2002 it was clear that the DPRK was not adhering to the spirit of the bargain. Pyongyang took umbrage when Washington accused the regime of illegally processing uranium — while also saying they had a right to nuclear weapons and blaming us for forcing them to pursue the program. They pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out the verification teams.
Our response to this anti-social behavior was to convene the six-party talks; notably, North Korea only agreed to show up after the Coalition invaded Iraq. Pyongyang adopted its usual bipolar posture, agreeing to negotiate while threatening various ominous actions they were ready to take in “self-defense.” A deal was reportedly reached on September 19, 2005, in the joint statement ending the fourth round of talks. North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs, return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency. At the time President Bush said “The question is, over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement?”
Well who thought they would? A year later, on October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. This brought about diplomatic movement, but not the kind the DPRK wanted. Four days after the test the president signed the North Korea Nonproliferation Act which allowed the U.S. to punish foreigners trading in nuclear and missile technology with North Korea. More significantly, on October 14 the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1718, which condemned the North Korean nuclear test in very strong language and imposed unprecedented financial sanctions. The resolution called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, and gave members states the authority to intercept suspected shipments of banned technology heading for the DPRK.
This was the high point in constructing the legal and diplomatic case for taking strong counterproliferation actions against the regime. Even the EU signed on to the sanctions. One might have expected the United States to be stopping and searching North Korean and other ships suspected of carrying contraband, in order to ramp up pressure on the regime and demonstrate our resolve. We might also have used this leverage to force progress on other issues such as North Korea’s missile program, as well as complicity in narcotics trade, counterfeiting, money laundering, and the abduction of Japanese nationals.
But instead all we sought to do was “force North Korea back to the negotiating table.” This is ironic because that is exactly where they want to be. So long as they are negotiating they know they are safe. And they have long cultivated the notion among our diplomats that simply getting them to agree to talk represents a victory for our side; it must amuse them to see us high-fiving when they “give in.” Compounding our retreat is the fact that the deal was struck in bilateral negotiations, held last January in Berlin. We had previously resisted this on principle, because bilateral talks would elevate North Korea’s international status. But that principle has gone by the wayside.
It will be interesting to see if this deal lasts any longer than the 2005 agreement; or does as much damage as the 1994 framework. Regardless, we have already been bested. Our failure to follow up on the momentum we acquired in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test was a strategic blunder. We have lost sight of the fact that the only way substantive and permanent change will come to the Korean peninsula is with the end of Kim Jong Il’s regime. Any agreement we reach with Pyongyang only serves to push that date further into the future. The “Assassin” certainly has a lot to smile about.
— James S. Robbins is author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.