The new North Korea deal is surprisingly Clintonian.

Military analysis.
Feb. 13 2007 5:58 PM

Bush Channels Bill

The new North Korea deal is surprisingly Clintonian.

Kim Jong Il. Click image to expand.
Kim Jong-il

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.

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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.

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.

Bush may also face resistance from his own party. Clinton did. The Agreed Framework started to fall apart when Congress refused to authorize the money for energy assistance—which, in that accord, included 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors. Bush may have to rely on Democrats to approve this part of the deal. Will he push his endorsement that far? Will the Democrats go along?

Clinton's Agreed Framework outlined a step-by-step process, similar to the one in Bush's accord. It included normalizing relations, a peace treaty, enhanced inspections, and also something Bush's deal doesn't yet have—a detailed process for dismantling the Yongbyon facilities and exporting the nuclear fuel rods. But after the light-water reactors fell through, the two sides never got beyond the first phase.

(In 2002, the CIA discovered that the North Koreans had secretly acquired technology to enrich uranium—an alternative, if more time-consuming, way to build A-bombs. The project didn't violate the Agreed Framework, which covered only their ability to build plutonium bombs; but its secrecy did violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Soon after, Bush formally withdrew from the Agreed Framework, but it was already long dead.)

Even if both sides now have good intentions (a big if), the next phases of this deal will be rough. North Korea is a closed society; that isn't likely to change soon. How will a true disarmament accord be verified? How much will Kim Jong-il let open to inspectors? (Every country, including the United States, puts limits on such intrusions.) If he starts backing away from commitments, will the other powers be so bold as to back away from theirs? Bush touts the multilateral forum because it binds North Korea's neighbors, especially China, to help enforce any agreement. But it also allows North Korea to play the big powers off one another—a game that they've long played very well.

In sum, this deal has promise; but it's nothing that couldn't have been negotiated four or five years ago, and it's a long way from done.