President George W. Bush finally got a nuclear deal with North Korea because he finally started negotiating like Bill Clinton.
A constant mantra for the past dozen years—chanted by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on several occasions—is that the Agreed Framework, which the Clinton administration signed with North Korea in 1994, was a naive and disastrous failure.
And yet the deal that Bush's diplomats just negotiated is very similar to Clinton's accord in substance—and nearly identical in its approach to arms control.
When Bush first came to power, he refused to talk with the North Koreans at all. Kim Jong-il was an evil dictator, and, as Cheney once put it, "We don't negotiate with evil—we defeat it."
In 2003, the six-party talks began, involving the United States, North and South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. But Bush refused to put forth a serious offer until the North Koreans first agreed to dismantle their nuclear program. In other words, the North Koreans had to accept the prospective outcome of negotiations—an end to their ability to make nuclear weapons, the only bargaining chip they had—as a precondition for getting talks started. No surprise they didn't go along.
After a couple of years, Bush modified his stance, outlining certain rewards that the North Koreans would receive for disarming—but still insisting that they had to make the first moves.
In their memoir-history, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, three former Clinton administration officials (Joel Wit, Daniel Poneman, and Robert Gallucci) recall that a turning point came when Gallucci, the chief negotiator, realized why the North Koreans kept rejecting his proposals. It was because they all required the North Koreans to disarm long before they required the United States to reward them for doing so. The talks made progress after the Clinton team made offers that called on the two sides to take actions simultaneously and in step-by-step phases.
That's what the deal reached Monday calls for, too. The "Joint Statement," released at the six-party talks in Beijing Tuesday, refers to "coordinated steps … in a phased manner," "the principle of 'action for action,' " and "actions in parallel."
The Clinton team also detected, once talks got under way, that disputes between the two sides were almost always resolved in small, informal settings. Bush has resisted these kinds of meetings, but that's where the outline of this new deal was sketched out—in one-on-one sessions in Berlin.
It's worth noting, in this respect, that, two weeks ago, Robert Joseph resigned from his job as undersecretary of state for arms control, citing concerns about the status of talks with North Korea. Joseph, who had previously handled the same portfolio at the National Security Council, took a hard line against making any concessions to Pyongyang.