Let’s say you were Kim Jong Il, and your goal were to stay in power. Suppose, further, that you wished to continue clandestine proliferation activities, knowing that possession of atomic weapons shielded you from attack, and that the sale of ballistic missiles and nuclear technologies to your allies Iran and Syria helped undermine the power and leverage of your enemy, the United States.
Imagine that, and you should also imagine yourself a happy man today.
That’s of course not what the U.S. headlines would say. If you bothered to read the translations, you would find accounts of a diplomatic breakthrough for the Bush administration, which on Thursday announced that it was removing your regime from its list of terror sponsors, and lifting some economic sanctions, in return for disclosure of details about your efforts to make weapons-grade plutonium. Come Saturday, you would see all the U.S. networks broadcasting footage of the demolition of the cooling tower at your Yongbyon nuclear reactor. You would note a guarded but general optimism among U.S. commentators that you were gradually keeping your part of the bargain to abandon your nuclear program in exchange for the turning back on of the aid spigot to your regime.
So why would you be happy?
To begin with, you’d still be sitting on top of a small but strategically valuable nuclear arsenal. You would know that the disclosure documents you just turned over say nothing of these; nor would you have committed to destroy them. You would not have disclosed — as required by the six-party agreement — anything about the secret uranium-enrichment activities of which you have long been suspected. Also required, and also dodged, would be any disclosure of the extent to which you have provided nuclear technologies to your client states, particularly Syria, whose efforts to build a nuclear reactor you assisted even after the six-party agreement was concluded — right up until the Israeli air force took notice and destroyed the reactor site. Your cooperation with Iran on missile technologies would be proceeding without a hitch. Your decision to shut down Yongbyon would be entirely symbolic: The reactor had reached the end of its life, and had given you pretty much all the weaponizable plutonium it could. You would know there was no verification mechanism in place even for the limited disclosure you had made — so if you were lying, you’d feel pretty sure to get away with it.
Best of all, in exchange for your minor concession, the U.S. would have just gone a long way toward clearing your name. You would now look forward to the tangible and immediate benefit of fuel and food aid (you must keep your army fed to stay in power, after all, even as your people starve), and the intangible but no-less-important benefit of dissipated international hostility toward your regime. You would expect the U.S. to push for greater disclosure and transparency in coming months. But you’d know that the brief international consensus to punish your regime — which culminated in two rounds of U.N. sanctions — was coming apart at the seams, that the Bush administration’s moment had passed, and that you had survived.
You would then sit back and smile.
Of course, we don’t know the mind of Kim Jong Il. But we know his actions: his history of lies, broken promises, and secret proliferation. And it’s that history which should lead us to view this latest step in the pas de deux between Kim Jong Il and the U.S. State Department with skepticism.
President Bush took great pains, in announcing Kim’s partial rehabilitation, to say that North Korea wasn’t off the hook. It is still one of the most sanctioned countries in the world; it will still be called upon to account for its dealings with Iran and Syria, its work with uranium, its existing arsenal. The U.S. is simply matching “action for action”: the disclosure of North Korean plutonium work for a partial reintegration of North Korea into the world’s diplomatic and financial structures (owing to the lifting of sanctions and the removal of the scarlet “T” for terror-sponsor, Pyongyang may qualify for loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions).
The plutonium disclosure, if accurate, is not without value. Among other things, it helps give us an idea of how many nuclear weapons Kim might have built. Trouble is, all the important work lies ahead. If a nuclear Kim is something we should feel threatened by — and everything we know about the man suggests it is — then we must face the reality that the threat has not appreciably dissipated. We have no idea how much fissile material Kim may have enriched or may be enriching at sites other than Yongbyon, and no idea how much cooperation he has offered to his Axis of Evil pals. What we do know is that, with each incremental easing of sanctions and penalties, the Hermit King has less reason to give us the concessions that matter most.
The deal that emerged from the six-party talks is indeed making for dramatic headlines and good television. What cannot be said is that it is making us safe.