Better Than Nothing
Decoding North Korea's latest moves.
Critics on the right, especially John Bolton, the administration's former U.N. ambassador, lashed out at this deal as an abandonment of Bush's principles—an accurate appraisal, though the president's longstanding critics (including me) heaved a sigh of relief, noting that these "principles" had been the main problem all along. They were based on the fantasy that Kim Jong-il's regime would collapse if we simply ignored it and occasionally threatened to overthrow it. White House officials said their policy stemmed from "moral clarity"; critics pointed out that keeping Kim Jong-il from building and proliferating A-bombs was a moral, as well as pragmatic, stance, too.
It is the "initial phase" of this controversial agreement—which the six-party members ratified on Feb. 13, 2007—that is now being implemented, triggering renewed attacks from the hawks but also raised eyebrows from several arms-control advocates.
There was always one loophole in that document. The Bush administration, in summarizing the deal, said that it required the North Koreans, among other things, to list all their nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. However, that wasn't quite accurate. The document said only that the North Koreans "will discuss" such a list. (Italics added.)
One lesson learned by those who negotiated the 1990s' Agreed Framework was this: The North Koreans will exploit every loophole, so nail the language down tight. That didn't happen this time—for understandable reasons, which we will soon discuss, but still.
The North Koreans did discuss a list. But, according to some knowledgeable sources, the 60-page list that they actually provided pertains only to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and to its nearby reprocessing plant. Now this is a big deal. Plutonium is the element that produces the largest number of nuclear bombs in the shortest span of time. But it's not quite the deal that the administration said, or perhaps thought, it was getting. The list was supposed to—or, minus that pesky "discuss" loophole, it looked like it was supposed to—cover "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs," not just those dealing with plutonium. Other programs would include highly enriched-uranium facilities, high-explosive test sites, nuclear test sites, and storage facilities that might contain bombs and fissile materials. The list reportedly does not include any of that.
One caveat here: Only a few government officials have actually seen this list. It will be publicly released, but it hasn't been yet. The description that I'm going on (and I'm far from the only one) may be wrong—though, on the main points, it's probably right. (For an elaboration on this claim, click
Daniel Sneider, assistant director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, calls the deal "a plutonium-containment program" and adds: "That's fine. But it's not what it was supposed to be." Scott Snyder, senior associate at the Asia Foundation (and author of Negotiating on the Edge, the best book about North Korea's diplomatic strategy), agrees: "The scope of this agreement does not match what we signed up for." He also says, "As always with North Korea, it's disappointing and frustrating." Still, he says, "It's better than nothing." Both Sneider and Snyder, it should be noted, have been strong advocates of arms control and critics of the Bush administration's earlier approach.
Two questions arise. First, could Rice and Hill have managed a better deal? It's hard to say. In his book, Scott Snyder writes that the North Koreans typically adopt a very hard line toward the end of a negotiating session. At that point, the other side has to be willing to stand firm and walk away. Clinton's emissary did just that toward the end of the Agreed Framework talks, after the North Koreans announced a signing ceremony then told the puzzled American that the five remaining disputes would simply be settled in Pyongyang's favor. (They relented when he said he was going home.) Should Hill, too, have taken his car to the airport? Would the North Koreans have backed down? Who can say?
There is one big difference between 1994 and 2008: The United States had lots of leverage back then—and it has very little now. There are two reasons for this. First, when Clinton dangled the threat of force in front of the North Koreans in '94, they might have believed he'd really use it; Bush never even dangled a threat, and, with military forces stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, such growling wouldn't have been credible anyway. Second, and more important, by 2008, the North Koreans had already reprocessed plutonium and set off an atomic bomb; they were a bona fide "nuclear state." They could walk away from the table with a more sincere shrug than we could.
When John Bolton was undersecretary of state in the Bush administration's first term (a post in which he was installed at the vice president's insistence), he and Cheney put up fierce resistance every time then-Secretary Colin Powell tried to push ahead on talks with North Korea. The next time Bolton writes an op-ed decrying the Bush-Rice-Hill deal, he—or at least his readers—should note that, to the extent it's less than perfect, the fault, to a large extent, is his.
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.