It’s a surprising reversal to see the Washington Post in particular speaking so critically of the results of something for which it spent so many years and so much ink advocating.
North Korea first made clear that it would take no action until the banking issue was settled by the unfreezing of its accounts. The administration conceded that. Then Pyongyang demanded all of its money back, including that linked to criminal activity. Again, the administration gave in; on April 10, it made all $25 million available for withdrawal. But that, too, failed to resolve the issue: Now the North is insisting that it be able to transfer the money to bank accounts in South Korea, Italy or Russia — and thereby formally break the taboo the U.S. Treasury had managed to create on its use of the international banking system. Guess what? The Bush administration is once again going along.
Administration officials say all this, along with the breaking of the deadline by (so far) 24 days, will be worth it if the reactor is shut down. That’s true. But it should be remembered that the commitments on which Pyongyang is currently in default are the first and easiest in what is supposed to be a three-stage process. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted in February, only if Kim Jong Il complied with the second stage — by disclosing and disabling all nuclear facilities — would it be possible to conclude that he had made a “strategic choice” to give up nuclear weapons. State Department negotiator Christopher Hill said last week that he still believed that that could happen by the end of this year. Again, we hope he’s right. But so far, the record is this: In 84 days, North Korea has done nothing but extract concessions from the United States. [Washington Post]
The Chosun Ilbo reveals why Hill is acting with such desperation to save this deal:
With the atmosphere souring, U.S. top nuclear envoy Christopher Hill is under fire from hardliners at home who feel the U.S. was deceived by North Korea. Appearing discouraged, Hill in a lecture at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington said he might lose his job if the February agreement is not implemented within this year.
Japan is considering additional sanctions on North Korea if Pyongyang continues to drag its feet, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Thursday. [Chosun Ilbo]
Emphasis mine. I’m somewhat surprised to hear Hill admit that in public. If you attended and don’t agree with that quotation, by all means drop a comment. In any event, by the end of this year, the administration won’t have time to put any alternative plan in place. Even the New York Times is surprisingly impatient.
Vagueness was apparently the only way to get North Korea and the White House — who still aren’t sure they want a deal — to sign on. It says nothing about the sequencing of concessions and rewards or what “disablement’ and “abandonment” and “denuclearization” mean.
What makes this especially hard is that nearly all nuclear technology can be diverted to make weapons. That means that there are many North Korean genies, not one, to be wrestled back into the bottle — and a frighteningly large number of ways they can spring back out again.
To meet their commitment to disable the Yongbyon reactor, the North Koreans could do something easily reversible like disconnecting cooling pipes, or they could make it a lot harder on themselves by pouring concrete into the tubes that hold the fuel rods in place. The agreement offers no direction. It also doesn’t say what is supposed to happen to the reactor’s 8,000 fuel rods, which contain at least a bomb’s worth of plutonium. The Americans will want them put into stainless steel cans and shipped as quickly as possible out of the country. Nor does it say what should happen to the Koreans’ inventory of separated plutonium or the four to 10 weapons they may have built.
Jon Wolfsthal, a former Energy Department aide who spent a month in Yongbyon in the mid-1990s preparing for the canning of fuel rods, says that Washington and its allies are going to have to decide which parts of the program they most want to see gone and what level of irreversibility they will insist on. “The more we ask for, the higher the price the North Koreans will demand,” he said.
And then there is the question of whether the North Koreans will come clean about a possible, parallel uranium enrichment program — and how hard Washington will press the issue. The 1994 deal fell apart in 2002 after the Bush administration accused the Koreans of hiding such a program. Since the February agreement, some U.S. officials have suggested that they may have overstated the North’s progress, a suddenly convenient truth for the White House. [Carla Anne Robbins, NY Times]
Robbins really just restates the obvious fact that we had to make this agreement almost completely meaningless to get North Korea to sign it. Having done a fairly good job of explaining just how little this deal does to actually, you know, denuclearize North Korea, she then tells us what it will take for us to save it: “a lot of international support, a lot of patience, a thick checkbook and a very thick skin.” What I would really rather Robbins answered was the question she so effectively raised: “Why?”
The good news is that so far, no one is blaming the United States for this state of affairs yet. That will continue to be the case as long as we keep meeting every new North Korean demand, no matter how preposterous.