Better Than Nothing
Decoding North Korea's latest moves.
The North Koreans blew up the cooling tower of their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon today. (You can watch the explosion here.) In the wake of their earlier steps, which include the release of a 60-page document itemizing their nuclear programs and facilities, the path toward the country's total nuclear disarmament seems fairly well-paved.
And yet nobody outside the State Department, dove or hawk, seems very happy with this deal—and with good reason. It is better than nothing, by a long shot. But, even compared with the goals spelled out in joint statements by the two governments over the past year, the step down the road is a small one indeed.
Some brief history of where we've been:
In 1994, President Bill Clinton negotiated the "Agreed Framework," which froze activity at North Korea's reactor, locked its fuel rods—which could be reprocessed into plutonium—inside a pool, and stationed international monitors inside the facility.
In 2001, President George W. Bush called off further talks and, soon after, canceled the Agreed Framework. The North Koreans announced that they would kick out the inspectors, unlock the fuel rods, and reprocess them into plutonium. Soon after, they did just that—to no response from the United States.
In July 2003, the North Koreans announced that they'd reprocessed all 8,000 fuel rods, enough to build a half-dozen or so A-bombs.
One month later, "six-party talks" began—involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and both Koreas—to discuss the nuclear issue. Bush never put any seriously enticing proposals on the table.
In September 2005, the six-party talks resulted in a "Joint Statement," in which the North Koreans committed to abandoning their nuclear weapons and related programs—and the other parties agreed to reward them with energy assistance. It was also agreed that these steps would be taken in a phased manner, "commitment for commitment, action for action." This was a significant departure from Bush's previous stance, which refused to make any concessions until after the North Koreans dismantled all their nuclear facilities. Still, the statement was vague. The North Koreans agreed to return to compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "at an early date." Washington agreed to supply them with a light-water nuclear reactor "at an appropriate time." No specific steps or inducements were spelled out.
In October 2006, again after several announcements, the North Koreans exploded a nuclear bomb in an underground test site.
At that point, Bush got serious about arms control. In early 2007, at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's prodding, he allowed Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill to hold bilateral talks in Berlin with his North Korean counterpart (the sorts of talks that Bush had previously forbidden). A few days later, they negotiated a deal that would give Kim Jong-il's regime specific rewards for taking partial steps toward disarmament.
(For more on this saga, see my bookDaydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, specifically Chapter 2 and the last few pages of Chapter 5.)
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Kim Jong-il by STR/AFP/Getty Images.