Decoding North Korea's latest moves.

Military analysis.
June 27 2008 6:40 PM

Better Than Nothing

Decoding North Korea's latest moves.

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

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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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.)

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 here.)

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.