Bush Channels Bill
The new North Korea deal is surprisingly Clintonian.
It's also significant that John Bolton—the discarded U.N. ambassador who, at Cheney's insistence, had held Joseph's post in Bush's first term—has already slammed the accord as "a very bad deal," noting, "It contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy … for the past six years."
He's certainly right about the latter point.
Here's the deal, as outlined in the "Joint Statement":
* Within 60 days, the North Koreans must shut down and seal their nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon in the presence of international inspectors. In exchange, the United States, China, Russia, and South Korea will give them 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or a comparable amount of food and other aid.
* The North Koreans will also provide a list of all their nuclear programs and stockpiles, and they will open all nuclear facilities to international inspectors. At that point, the four other powers will provide another 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, worth about $400 million. (Japan will take part only after talks begin to settle its own separate issues with North Korea, involving the return of kidnapped Japanese citizens.)
* In the next phase, the United States and North Korea will hold bilateral talks on normalizing relations, and all six powers will discuss a permanent peace treaty to supplant the mere cease-fire that ended the 1950-53 war (which has never formally ended).
*At this point, talks will also begin toward dismantling North Korea's nuclear program—not merely freezing it, as the North Koreans must do in the first phase of this process.
In other words, the North Koreans get nearly half a billion dollars in aid and a forum for diplomatic recognition before they even have to talk about scrapping a reactor or surrendering a gram of plutonium. On one point, Bolton is right: This deal rubs against the policy that Bush has pursued—even the political philosophy that he's held—throughout the six years of his presidency.
But what about Bolton's other point: Is it a "bad deal"? That depends on what happens next, and we won't know that answer for months, maybe years.
The initial phase is promising. The North Koreans at least freeze their nuclear program. This isn't as good a deal as it was when Clinton negotiated a freeze back in 1994. They hadn't reprocessed any of their 8,000 nuclear fuel rods into plutonium at that point. After the Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002, they reprocessed all of them—resulting in enough plutonium for a dozen atom bombs. We know they built at least one of those bombs, since they tested it last October. So, a freeze may still leave them with a small arsenal—and perhaps some hidden facilities that they've had a half-decade to build. Still, a freeze, with inspectors, is better than no freeze.
The next phases are where things get complicated. As Scott Snyder notes in his extremely useful book Negotiating on the Edge, Clinton's Agreed Framework, a relatively simple matter, took 50 negotiating sessions to hammer out, with the North Koreans playing wily mind games from start to finish. The deal was made, but it took patience and a shrewd mix of flexibility and firmness on the part of U.S. negotiators. Will Bush allow his negotiators the same leeway? And will the North Koreans be wilier than usual? They know that Bush has just two years left in office; they may exploit what they perceive—mistakenly or not—as desperation for a deal. Clinton wasn't halfway into his first term; they knew he could hold out for a while.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Kim Jong-il by STR/AFP/Getty Images.