YOU KNOW THE BUSH administration’s North Korea policy is fatally flawed when even Barack Obama, last heard pledging to meet with the world’s dictators “without preconditions,” judges it naïve.
And yet, the presumptive Democratic nominee sounded all too sensible yesterday when he suggested that the Bush administration’s baffling decision to strike Pyongyang from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring states and to lift trade sanctions against the tyrannical regime – in exchange for an alarmingly incomplete “declaration” of its nuclear plants and materials – may have been premature. Concessions to Kim Jong Ill, Obama stressed, should be “based on North Korean performance.”
The Bush administration favors a different metric: wishful thinking. How else to explain that it has generously rewarded North Korea for repeatedly flouting nuclear agreements – not least agreements it has signed with the administration as recently as last fall? Under the terms of an October 2007 agreement, after all, North Korea by the end of last year was supposed to provide a “complete” inventory of its nuclear programs and weaponry while demonstrating that it had shut down its nuclear plants. By the time the deadline arrived on December 31, however, Pyongyang was nowhere near satisfying its obligations under the pact. For that intransigence, it has now been given two gifts by the administration.
This is not the course negotiations were supposed to take. Back in December, State Department officials were warning that North Korea’s failure to come clean would prompt the U.S. “reevaluate and look to other options.” At the time, that sounded like a threat – and a warranted one. In the years before the pact, North Korea had made a menace of itself on the international stage, beginning with its expulsion of U.N. nuclear monitors in late 2002. The following year, North Korea declared itself free from the obligations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted the nuclear weapons program it was supposed to have suspended under a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration.
Escalating tensions further in 2005, North Korea bragged that it had finally gotten “nukes” and had no more use for silly disarmament talks. So that there would be no doubt about its seriousness, in October of 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, immediately hailed by the country’s government-run news agency for bringing “our people huge joy.” (By “our people,” it presumably did not mean the thousands of Koreans rotting in Soviet-style prison camps for “anti-communist” crimes.) If additional proof of Pyongyang’s intentions were needed, it was supplied by revelations that the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel last September had been constructed with North Korean assistance. “Other options” were indeed in order.
It now turns out that the options the U.S. had been contemplating were designed not to punish North Korean duplicity but to encourage it. So it is that, despite its recent collaboration with Hezbollah-sponsor Syria – to say nothing of its intent, in the run-up the Iraq war, to sell $10 million worth of medium-range missiles to Saddam Hussein for use against coalition troops – North Korea no longer will be designated a terrorist state. Never mind that the country has yet to come clean about its nuclear program. In the eyes of the Bush administration, North Korea has been given a clean slate.
And legitimacy. Notwithstanding its defiance of every nuclear treaty it has ever signed – a habit of violation that continues in its latest declaration, which reportedly discusses only plutonium processing activities and not the uranium enrichment and nuclear capabilities that were supposed to have been declared – North Korea is being treated as a credible partner in negotiations instead of the extortionist state that it clearly is. Fool the Bush administration once, the lesson appears to be, and you wind up in the “axis-of-evil.” Fool it repeatedly, and all is forgiven.
As always with North Korea, there are token concessions. To demonstrate its sincerity, Pyongyang has invited foreign TV crews to broadcast its demolition of the cooling tower at the notorious Yongbyon nuclear plant. It promises to be quite the affair, though one would have to be really taken in by spectacle to forget that the plant was already supposed to be completely disabled in the 1990s and, more recently, by the end of 2007. Nor will the made-for-the-cameras moment prove that North Korea has nothing to hide. The facility at Yongbyon is believed to have been shuttered last year, having already produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to build, by some estimates, at least nine nuclear bombs. To see the destruction of this Potemkin reactor as a sign of genuine progress is to yield to illusion.
So much the stranger, then, that this week’s deal has been touted as a triumph by the formerly clear-eyed Bush administration. Since 2002, when the administration first moved, in the face of substantial criticism, to ostracize Kim Jong Ill’s regime, North Korea has confirmed its worst suspicions. Now the administration has repented for its prescience by granting the regime an undeserved reprieve. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton may be overstating the case when he calls the new agreement the “final collapse of Bush’s foreign policy.” But it is certainly true to say that it marks a rejection of the principle of accountability in international affairs that the administration once championed.
President Bush stressed several times this week that he is “under no illusions” about the dangers of nuclear North Korea. That is heartening to hear. Would that it were reflected in his foreign policy.