The Bush administration has avoided sounding any triumphalist notes in the wake of North Korea’s decision to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, and wisely so. Yes, this is good news — as would be any step that marginally decreased the threat posed by a nuclear-armed, weapons-trading, highly unstable, rogue regime. But the threat has been reduced just barely; there is no reason to think Kim Jong Il will ever voluntarily disarm; and the flaws in the February 13 deal between North Korea and the other participants in the six-party talks remain all too apparent.
The threat has been reduced just barely, because the aging Yongbyon reactor may already have been near the point at which it was no longer useful in the production of nuclear weapons. If it is still useful, there is nothing to stop Kim from firing it back up at any time. What is unquestionably still useful is the uranium-enrichment equipment he bought from A. Q. Khan, the regrettably entrepreneurial Pakistani nuclear scientist. And then there are the nuclear weapons Kim has already built. No one knows for sure how many there are, or how powerful their yield, but North Korea is thought to have enriched enough plutonium for ten or more bombs since 2002, when it gave IAEA inspectors the boot.
There remains no reason to think that Kim will voluntarily part with these weapons, because they are the best guarantor of security he will ever have. Even more than the artillery he has massed within firing range of Seoul, the atomic bombs protect him against attack. They permit him to threaten terrible retaliation for any action that may destabilize his regime. And, perhaps most important, they allow him to extort the energy and food aid from his neighbors that — along with his consortium of black-market businesses — keeps his government afloat.
Which brings us to the February 13 agreement. Let’s step back and ask which side has benefited most from the deal so far. The U.S. and its negotiating partners have won the reactor shutdown, but Kim’s overall threat continues scarcely diminished. Kim, for his part, is well on the way back to having the world bankroll his regime. South Korea sent its first shipment of food on June 30, with hundreds of thousands of additional tons promised this year. The first shipment of fuel aid, 50,000 pounds of it, will also be on its way soon. And $25 million of Kim’s money-laundering lucre, formerly frozen at a Macau bank, is safely back in Pyongyang.
Now these numbers — $25 million, 50,000 pounds — are, admittedly, not large, at least by the standards of a government. Further aid will supposedly be conditioned on Kim’s compliance with other commitments in the February 13 agreement. In this, the agreement is superior to Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework, which gave Kim everything he wanted up front, allowing him to renege on all his promises and sally forth with an atomic boom. But the February deal’s greatest flaw — and its greatest boon to Kim — was not any particular concession, but rather a dissipation of the diplomatic momentum that had built against the North Korean regime and taken the form of U.N. sanctions against it. And even the additional commitments that Kim is eventually supposed to fulfill under the deal do not require him to give up his existing nuclear arsenal. In other words, the agreement enshrined middling steps as final ends, with the consequence that the diplomatic corps of the six-party-talk participants — the U.S. State Department very much included — are now more focused on achieving these steps than on effecting a true end to North Korea’s menace.
That is why, for instance, the U.S. and its negotiating partners scarcely peeped after Kim’s short-range ballistic-missile tests last month, even though these were in violation of two U.N. Security Council resolutions. It’s also why no one seemed to mind that the reactor shutdown came three months late, and why the U.S. government enlisted no less than the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to help Kim move his ill-gotten gains from Macau back to Pyongyang. Anything that might upset Kim’s dainty pirouettes toward compliance with the February 13 deal has been eschewed.
This isn’t to deny that the Bush administration has, on some fronts, put real pressure on Kim. In particular, the Treasury Department’s designation of the Banco Delta Asia — Kim’s bank of choice in Macau — as “an institution of primary money-laundering concern” has made life harder for the Dear Leader. Other banks have subsequently refused to deal with his regime, for fear of facing a similar consequence. As a result, Kim has been largely cut out of the international financial system. Given the proportion of his regime’s money that comes from illegal business activities, this is an instrument of considerable strategic pressure, not a minor nuisance. But the Treasury Department could have issued its BDA ruling with or without the February 13 deal — or, for that matter, with or without the six-party talks. The Bush administration should be maximizing pressure on all fronts, not cranking it up here while pressing the escape valves there.
On February 13, Kim got something for nothing: a shifting of the diplomatic course away from sanctions, in exchange for promises of future compliance. Now that Yongbyon isn’t operating, “something for nothing” is no longer accurate. But Kim has still gotten a great deal in exchange for very little — and the world is not appreciably safer for it.