The BBC interviewer was solicitous. "Mr. Froom," he began. (British interviewers almost always pronounce my name with a long vowel, just as they invariably pronounce Paul Wolfowitz's name, "Vulfovitz." I suppose they must be trying to encourage us to take more pride in our Eastern European roots. Or something.)
"Mr. Froom: Isn't this newest North Korea deal a great victory for realism over the more ideological approach of the 'axis of evil'?"
I like questions like that--puts the cards right on the table. But you need a little history to understand what the interviewer was driving at.
North Korea has pursued a nuclear bomb since at least the 1980s. It completed a Soviet-style plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon in 1986. By 1992, North Korea had extracted enough plutonium to build at least two nuclear bombs.
President Clinton seriously considered bombing the North Korean reactors. In the end, however, he struck a deal: The U.S. and its allies Japan and South Korea would provide the North Korean regime with food and energy aid. In return, North Korea would suspend its weapons program.
Hands were shaken, and aid delivered--and the cheating began almost at once. In 1997, U.S. intelligence discovered that North Korea had made a secret deal with Pakistan: In exchange for North Korean missile technology, the Pakistanis gave North Korea high-speed centrifuges and advice on building a uranium-based bomb.
In February, 2002, President Bush cited North Korea as one of the "axis of evil" states allied with terrorists and arming to threaten the peace of the world. In October, 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea with proof of its cheating. Aid to North Korea was suspended, and new sanctions imposed.
North Korea reacted by restarting its old plutonium reactors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and quickly extracting more plutonium from its old Yongbyon fuel rods. In October, 2006, North Korea tested a plutonium-based nuclear bomb.
The test jolted the Bush administration into relaunching Clinton-style diplomacy: direct face-to-face negotiations with North Korea. In February, 2007, the administration announced a Clinton-style deal: economic aid to North Korea would resume in exchange for more North Korean promises to behave in future.
Alas, no sooner had the deal been struck than North Korea began to break it. It missed an April deadline to shut down its reactor, demanding the release of U.S. $25 million in frozen North Korean funds. The Bush administration gave way in mid-June. The North Koreans still did not close the reactor, but they agreed to allow UN inspectors into the country.
President Bush's special envoy, Christopher Hill, now predicts that North Korea will shut down the reactor in mid-July. We'll see.
But what if anything will that accomplish?
Graham Allison, a nuclear expert who served as assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, estimates that North Korea has built an arsenal of 10 nuclear weapons. In a May, 2007, oped in the Boston Globe, Allison observed:
"[Kim Jong-Il's] goal is to keep these weapons, sell the aging Yongbyon reactor and reprocessing facility for the highest price, and do this in a way that shows sufficient deference to Beijing to restore its de facto protection."
Allison predicts that Kim Jong-Il will succeed.
"After the closing and disabling of Yongbyon, expect lengthy slogging through incomplete records, all in Korean script, missed deadlines, disputes about who can visit where, and all the other antics that have left International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors unable to close the nuclear file in Iran after 20 years of efforts."
In other words, the Bush administration's diplomatic policy will deliver the worst of all possible outcomes: a nuclear-armed North Korea sustained by Western economic aid. And the BBC calls that "realism."
The North Korean regime survives courtesy of Chinese aid and protection. It is China that provides the North Korean regime with coal, food and credit. Without Chinese aid, the regime could not endure: remember, this is a regime that regards U.S. $25-million in frozen assets as an enormous sum. (South Korea generates $25 million in new wealth every 11 minutes.)
China supports North Korea because it dreads a North Korean collapse. The Chinese leaders know that such a collapse would unify the peninsula under a democratic government based in Seoul and aligned with the U.S. and Japan--for them, a terrifying outcome.
These negotiations reassure North Korea they can have their weapons and their aid too: a perfect outcome from a North Korean point of view, a pretty good one from China's, and absolutely appalling from the point of view of the rest of the world.
If this is "realism," what would fantasy look like?