Jonathan Power: North Korea—The Long Way Around

Jonathan PowerOne small step forward by North Korea and the United States; one large step for mankind. The political fight to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear bomb making activities seems at last, in the dying days of the Bush presidency, to be entering a serious phase.

Washington has finally bowed to the North Korean request to remove it from the U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism—which will enable the renegade state to become eligible for international loans and sundry other economic benefits—in return for Pyongyang agreeing to re-allow inspections to verify a North Korean promise to freeze its nuclear activities, as it undertook last year and then withdrew from.

After nine years of erratic U.S. policies—met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones—the negotiations have ended up almost where they started following the highly fruitful diplomacy of the Clinton administration that transformed Pyongyang from total intransigence to a willing and helpful negotiating partner. Indeed, by some counts, this was the Clinton administration’s only substantial and productive foreign policy success. (That said, a Republican majority in Congress during the Clinton years torpedoed commitments made by his administration, diluting the real benefits.)

During the Bush administration, North Korea has tripled the amount of nuclear weapons’ material it has in store. Worse, it has exploded a nuclear bomb and probably has enough material to produce half a dozen more.

This must count as one of President George W. Bush’s worst foreign policy feats. A record of commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honored. Bush called the regime “evil” and then offered aid. It refused to negotiate over financial issues (notably money laundering by Banco Delta Asia) then returned the funds it had impounded.

Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, was made a fool of. After he declared that the new administration would try and complete the work of its predecessor, Powell was in effect publicly repudiated. The insider work of Vice-President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the rug from beneath him. Even the one time that Bush tried to take a more positive approach, officials working in committee at the interagency level managed to deflect it—such is the power of the senior bureaucracy (surely, a lesson for the future president).

Fortunately, the negotiations have been salvaged by a very determined second term secretary of state, Condoleezza Rica, who took personal charge of the talks and empowered a skillful principal negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the pile of confusion and misunderstandings that have now been heaped one atop the other.

The force and frequency of U.S. negotiating offers were stepped up and Pyongyang’s twists and turns—and often appalling misbehavior—were greater tolerated. In September 2005, the United States formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a “light water” reactor that would help satisfy North Korea’s domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. (The reactor sits half-finished.) In return Pyongyang agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection.

Perhaps inevitably, both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006, it exploded an underground nuclear device. Wisely, Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the inevitable rhetoric and finger-pointing. As a result, the administration continued with a more conventional diplomacy, sidelining hard-liners such as Cheney.

The Rice/Hill push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Then, earlier this year, the offer bore fruit. North Korea agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon main nuclear complex. It also said it would welcome (or perhaps grudgingly allow) back both U.S. and UN inspectors. But when Washington balked at removing North Korea from its state sponsors of terrorism list Pyongyang stalled.

Now we finally have the breakthrough, with the added bonus that North Korea has agreed to allow access to undeclared nuclear sites, but with the proviso the inspections come by mutual consent. This leaves Pyongyang with at least one more card to play.

Fuel aid was promised amid hints that the work on the nuclear reactor could recommence. Still, there is enough ambiguity in the agreement to allow the North to barter for more concessions in the future.

Nevertheless, a wheel has turned, bringing us almost back to where the Clinton administration left off. The next U.S. president will have to pick up the baton and hopefully sprint with it.

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