[Originally published at The New Ledger.]
Of the many things that will be written about North Korea this week, the least likely of these is, “Now there’s the kind of diplomacy we need more of.” Consider just the events of the last few days: the missile test itself, which may have hit closer to home than originally thought; the failure of the United Nations to enforce two of its violated resolutions; the broader failure of deterrence and counter-proliferation; and North Korea’s final repudiation of a February 2007 agreement in which it had agreed to verifiably dismantle all of its nuclear programs. North Korea now says that it will restart an dilapidated old 5-megawatt reactor that it took limited steps toward disabling in 2008. It will also boycott six-party disarmament talks again — this time for good, it says.
By themselves, these declarations shouldn’t alter the views of any careful observer much. North Korea had been reneging on its February 2007 promises since February 2007; it’s still holding South Korean POW’s in violation of the armistice that ended the Korean War; and it has probably broken every other international agreement it has made ever since. Kim Jong Il was clearly looking for a convenient reason to press the “reset” button on the commitments he made to President Bush and move on to his new demands of a new president. Despite his complete failure to keep any of his past disarmament commitments, he’ll insist on keeping all of President Bush’s concessions (on the terror sponsors’ list, bilateral and multilateral sanctions, aid, and fuel oil that the Obama Administration has just asked Congress to fund). If any excuse is needed, a mealy-mouthed, non-binding non-resolution by that impotent oxymoron known as the United Nations will do.
How you see this news depends on your perspective: If you only care about the existence of negotiations, take this news calmly. In due course, North Korea will let itself be dragged back to a new set of talks to demand a new set of concessions. On the other hand, if you actually believed in the negotiated disarmament of North Korea, the time has come for you to declare intellectual bankruptcy and sell your unpublished manuscripts for pulp value. A second successive U.S. initiative to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear disarmament of North Korea has come to naught, along with years of painstaking diplomacy to put our talks with North Korea into a multilateral forum and secure North Korean promises — for whatever they’re worth — to disarm. Disbelieve Democrats who claim to have done better. The best they can say is that Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework I was a partial and temporary success at containing the plutonium portion of North Korea’s nuclear program, even as North Korea cheated by pursuing a parallel, undeclared uranium enrichment program. Until very recently, some had still questioned North Korea’s guilt of this charge. The credibility of this argument took a steep drop in 2008, after North Korea handed over a set of aluminum samples and a batch of documents in an effort to prove its innocence of the uranium charge. Both tested positive for traces of highly enriched uranium. While questions remain about the scale of North Korea’s uranium program — questions that North Korea refuses to help us answer — its intent to cheat can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In any event, no agreement with North Korea endures longer than Kim Jong Il’s carefully calculated whims and our own willingness to tolerate his mendacity allow.
Even the partisan debate about North Korea has missed the point, as presidents of both parties have failed in very similar ways. Much of our public debate about North Korea has been consumed by shape-of-the-table arguments about the relative merits of bilateral and multilateral talks with psychopaths. Beneath this surface fog, both parties have regressed to a rigidly consistent mean when in power: tough talk that amounts to nothing in practice, lilliputian bondage by an unimaginative and gullible State Department, and the temptation to overlook North Korean cheating to bring the headlines about North Korea — as opposed to the underlying problem — back under control. Judging by the latest comments of President Obama’s Special Envoy to North Korea, this administration will take even less time to regress to the same mean. We will have more talks in some other form resulting in the exchange of irreversible U.S. concessions for North Korean promises that become due, if ever, at some endlessly vanishing horizon.
This is not just another setback. It is the manifest failure of the our foreign policy establishment to understand the character of the regime we are dealing with. It is the manifest error of that establishment’s shared faith that, with the right words and incentives, North Korea can be “managed.” That faith has proven so persistent in the face of North Korean cheating and belligerence that I’ve caught myself embracing Kim Jong Il’s provocations for the clarity I always hope they’ll eventually bring. These events shouldn’t just cause us to rethink the failure of twenty years of American diplomacy to contain the proliferation threat Kim Jong Il poses; they should also cause us to ask why we’re about to send America’s most conspicuously failed diplomat to handle what may be its most consequential diplomatic assignment.
As Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Christopher Hill became the eager architect and executor of President Bush’s North Korea policy for most of Bush’s second term. What I refer to as Agreed Framework II, signed in early 2007, was the cornerstone of that policy and Hill’s all-consuming focus. Hill is only the latest American diplomat to believe he could disarm Kim Jong Il, but Hill believed it in the way that John Hinckley believed he could win Jodie Foster’s love. In the process, Hill distinguished himself for his determined blindness to history and the pursuit of his own place in it with an unrestrained glibness that often crossed the line to dishonesty.
Hill, a career diplomat and a favorite of Richard Holbrooke, was hardly known to most Americans until very recently, when he edged General Anthony Zinni aside as President Obama’s nominee to be our next Ambassador to Iraq. After stints in the Balkans and as our Ambassador in Seoul, he returned to Washington, where he was dual-hatted as the U.S. delegate to the six-party talks. On September 19, 2005, just four days after the Treasury Department announced the money laundering sanctions that might have knocked Kim Jong Il off his throne once and for all, North Korea signed a vague “joint statement” in which it agreed in principle to verifiably dismantle all of its nuclear programs and weapons. North Korea duly reneged on that agreement the very next day, but Hill and his bosses stuck with the talks through another year of exorbitant North Korean demands and occasional boycotts. But by late 2006, North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests had drawn two tough-sounding U.N. resolutions, and it looked for a while as if we might actually enforce them. Treasury Department sanctions hurt more. As I wrote in greater detail here, those sanctions gave us the leverage over Kim Jong Il we had lacked until then. They had cut off Kim Jong Il’s access to international finance, had forced him to dip into his gold reserves, and were undermining the surprisingly fragile palace economy that sustained his misrule. For once, Kim Jong Il was negotiating from a position of weakness.
In this light, it’s hardly surprising that in December 2006, the North Koreans began looking for some breathing room. They asked to meet Hill secretly in Berlin. Publicly, the Bush Administration was sticking to what it had said during the 2004 presidential campaign: no bilateral talks. Hill, with some cover from Holbrooke, agreed to the meeting anyway. In Berlin, Hill and his North Korean counterpart agreed on the broad terms of a “grand bargain,” the very sort that North Korea doves in Washington had been arguing for from the think tanks for years. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tried to suggest that she scolded Hill for going to the meeting, but her subsequent ratification of the deal itself casts doubt on the sincerity of that claim. In due course, President Bush would also ratify the deal that followed.
Agreed Framework II was signed on February 13, 2007. It was neither long nor specific; you can read the full text here. It contained few deadlines or benchmarks and no consequences for non-performance, except for the implied withholding of aid. The deal initially required North Korea to shut down “the Yongbyon nuclear facility” and fully declare all its nuclear programs. Later, North Korea would invite in IAEA personnel to monitor the “disabling” of some of the nuclear facilities there. Eventually, North Korea would dismantle and surrender its nuclear weapons and facilities and allow the United States to monitor and verify its disarmament. The 2007 agreement itself didn’t specifically require North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons and programs. Instead, it resurrected the old 2005 agreement by reference.
Unlike North Korea, the United States made major new concessions in Agreed Framework II. It agreed to provide 1 million tons of fuel oil, to “start bilateral talks aimed at resolving bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations,” and to “begin the process” of lifting Trading With the Enemy Act sanctions and removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea soon added some additional, unwritten demands: the lifting of Treasury’s devastating money laundering sanctions, and America’s indulgence with North Korea’s continued arms trafficking and proliferation, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718. Taken together, these U.S. concessions represented a regime-sustaining financial windfall for Kim Jong Il. Without them, his regime might not have survived sudden cuts in South Korean aid in 2008.
The greater significance of Agreed Framework II was what it did not say. Nowhere in the agreement did North Korea make any commitments to repudiate its ongoing acts of terrorism, including its harboring of hijackers or its suspected assistance to Hezbollah. North Korea did not cease its periodic threats to destroy America, Seoul or Japan; shoot down airliners; or sell nuclear weapons to terrorists. It did not agree to release or account for dozens of Japanese and third-country hostages it has held for decades after abducting them, although it did agree to separate bilateral talks with Japan to discuss “unfortunate past and outstanding issues of concern.” Nor did it agree to account for the fate of U.S. resident Rev. Kim Dong Shik, whom North Korean agents kidnapped from China in 2002 and later killed. In a 2005 letter signed by then-Senator Barack Obama, the entire congressional delegation of Illinois, the home state of Rev. Kim and his U.S. citizen wife, informed the North Koreans that it would oppose removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism until North Korea accounted for Rev. Kim’s fate. (Obama reneged on his promise in May of 2008 and supported North Korea’s delisting anyway. North Korea has been holding two American journalists since March of this year.) Another glaring omission was Agreed Framework II’s failure to secure a North Korean acknowledgment of its undeclared uranium enrichment program, the very reason President Bush had declared North Korea to be in breach of Agreed Framework I.
By now, we know how the story of Agreed Framework ended. North Korea never provided a full disclosure of its nuclear programs; never dismantled or handed over a single nuclear weapon; never handed over any fissile material; never completely dismantled or disabled any of its several reactors in various states of completion; and never came clean about the September 2007 revelation that it was secretly building another reactor in Syria even as it negotiated with us. This cannot possibly be the “smart diplomacy” we were promised. Hill has no Middle Eastern experience, but he assures skeptics he’ll catch on quickly after he arrives in Baghdad. Hill had no Korea experience before becoming our Ambassador in Seoul, either. It’s fair to ask, then, why any diplomat with an understanding of North Korea’s negotiation history would preemptively give up most of our negotiating leverage before securing North Korea’s full disclosure and some meaningful progress toward disarmament first. Not even Christopher Hill knows, judging by this missive he fired at Fox News’s James Rosen in 2007:
Do you really think we could make concessions on the basis of an incomplete declaration, then somehow we would be able to return to the contentious issues AFTER – AFTER!!!??? — giving away all our leverage? Why? I can tell you this stupidity has never been under consideration by anyone who is part of the process or truly close to the process.
Even before the failure of Agreed Framework II had played out, Congress had some questions, and Hill went to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to answer them just days after the deal was signed. Hill made more promises than Bernie Madoff at an AARP convention, and he broke them just as promiscuously.
Hill insisted in his opening statement that North Korea must disclose “all” of its nuclear programs, and that “[a]ll means all, and this means the highly enriched uranium program as well.” Despite North Korea’s denial that it had a uranium enrichment program in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Hill pushed to give North Korea the million tons of heavy fuel oil, lift Trading With the Enemy sanctions, and remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea still denies having had a uranium enrichment program to this day.
Democratic Chairman Gary Ackerman wondered about verification. Hill responded, “I can assure you what we will not end up with is an agreement where they pretend to disarm and we pretend to believe them. We will have an agreement where we know.” But after President Bush granted the North Koreans key concessions at Hill’s urging, the North Koreans balked at verification. Hill tried to paper this over with a vague, almost meaningless verification protocol.
Rep. Chris Smith asked about North Korea’s oppression of its own people, including the diversion of international food aid to favored subjects. Hill answered: “I can assure you that any agreement … will be done entirely consistent with our laws and obligations [to condition non-humanitarian aid on human rights improvements, and to distribute aid according to internationally accepted humanitarian standards]. I can promise you that, Mr. Congressman…. As I have made crystal clear in all my discussions with the North Koreans, the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can never have a fully normal relationship absent progress on these important fronts.” A year later, in an interview with the L.A. Times, Hill had changed his answer: “Obviously we have continued differences with [North Korea], but we can do that in the context of two states that have diplomatic relations.” On another occasion, when Hill was asked about the atrocities in the North, Hill was quoted as saying, “Each country, including our own, needs to improve its human rights record.” Contrary to the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, Hill continued to exclude human rights from the talks’ agenda, and pushed President Bush to give more concessions after the North Koreans frustrated U.S. efforts to monitor the distribution of its food aid.
Rep. Ed Royce asked about North Korea’s counterfeiting of U.S. currency, which the agreement never addressed. Hill said, “I want to assure you that I have repeatedly raised with the North Korean side that it is completely unacceptable to be engaged in this type of activity…. We have no intention of trading nuclear deals for counterfeiting our currency.” Hill’s answer flirted with perjury. By then, he was probably already engineering the return of $25 million in counterfeiting-tainted funds to North Korea and the lifting of U.S. sanctions relating to counterfeiting and money laundering. The funds transfer may have been been a technical violation of 18 U.S.C. sec. 1957, which prohibits knowingly engaging in any transaction in criminally derived property. If Hill ever raised the issue with the North Koreans again, there’s no evidence of it. As of April 2008, Treasury believed that North Korea was still counterfeiting U.S. currency.
This was just the beginning of what would become a pattern for Hill. After months of North Korean stalling on the full disclosure of its nuclear programs, Hill finally secured a North Korean promise to deliver its disclosure by the end of 2007. Hill went to Pyongyang in November to find out whether the disclosure would be delivered on time. The North Koreans handed Hill a declaration so patently incomplete that Hill knew it would be a deal-breaker to accept it. Later, asked by reporters if he’d had “a chance to see” a draft of the North Korean declaration, Hill said “no.”
Later, as Hill pressed the Bush Administration to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, a Washington Post reporter asked Hill whether he’d ever seen a letter from Esther Kim, the widow of Rev. Kim Dong Shik, seeking Hill’s help to bring her husband’s remains home for burial. Hill denied having received the letter. Shortly thereafter, a knowledgeable reader sent me, and I published, photographs of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen handing Mrs. Kim’s letter to Assistant Secretary Hill. It’s always possible that Hill simply tossed the letter out or forgot about it, but this would hardly speak well of Hill’s fitness to represent American interests or values.
Hill tried to conceal what he could not explain, most embarrassingly the September 2007 revelation that North Korea had been building the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israeli warplanes. For months, the Bush Administration kept key congressional committees in the dark about the reactor and North Korea’s involvement in it. The ranking Republicans on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committee later co-wrote a blistering Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal to demand a briefing. When that briefing finally took place in April of 2008, it drew furious reactions in Congress, but did not kill Agreed Framework II.
More broadly, Hill continued to sell the President, the Secretary of State, and the American people a diplomatic initiative ostensibly aimed at denuclearizing North Korea long after North Korea had forcefully repudiated any such intention. No one knows when the North Koreans first started insisting that they were going to keep their nukes, agreement or not, but it took the visit of former U.S. diplomat Jack Pritchard to Pyongyang in the spring of 2008 for us to learn about it. In May of 2008, Pritchard told a Washington Post reporter what the North Koreans had told him, and what the North Koreans had almost certainly been telling Hill for months: “that the United States should get used to a nuclear-armed North Korea.” Not long afterward, the North Koreans cornered Condoleezza Rice face-to-face and demanded “to be recognized as a nuclear state.” Since then, the North Koreans have repeatedly and publicly insisted that they will never give up their nuclear weapons. Yet Hill continued to press his bosses for more concessions and fewer conditions until the end of the Bush Administration.
How did Hill get away with this? Partially because he had the unconditional love of most of the reporters who covered him. Hill did have one persistent skeptic, however, in Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. Brownback, a sponsor of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, has long pressed the point that a regime that runs a string of concentration camps as ghastly as this might not share the regard for human life that motivates our interest in a peaceful and transparent resolution of our differences. Since the Act’s passage, the State Department has done everything in its power not to implement it. Brownback stuck to one provision of the Act with particular firmness: that human rights must remain on our negotiating agenda with the North Koreans, particularly as the normalization of relations had also crept into the talks’ agenda. Frustrated by the State Department’s failure to fully fund and implement the Act, Brownback decided to use Senate procedures to hold up the nomination of Kathleen Stephens, a Hill protege, to be Ambassador to South Korea. Brownback lifted the hold after Hill promised, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, to invite the President’s Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea to all future negotiating sessions. The wording of the promise matters:
Senator Brownback: Ambassador Hill, there’s a Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, which I don’t believe has been invited to any of the negotiations to date between the United States and the Six-Party Talks.
Ambassador Hill: Well, we have been—first of all, he would be most welcome if he wishes to attend. He has been—
Senator Brownback: I want to, because my time will be narrow here: Will you state that the Special Envoy will be invited to all future negotiating sessions with North Korea?
Ambassador Hill: I would be happy to invite him to all future negotiating sessions with North Korea.
Senator Brownback: Thank you. [Transcript, Senate Foreign Relations Commitee, July 31, 2008, page 14]
This, however, did not happen, as the former Special Envoy later confirmed. Eight months later, after his nomination for the Iraq ambassadorship, Hill later went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seeking its favorable recommendation for a confirmation vote on the full Senate floor. In response to another Senator’s question about Hill’s promise to Brownback, Hill tried to claim that his promise applied only to “Phase III” of the agreement, that is, after North Korea had verifiably disarmed. But this is not what Hill promised. Never mind that by July 2008, Phase III was nowhere in sight. The brazenness of it is a thing to behold: in a Senate committee hearing while under oath, Hill had mischaracterized his promise in a previous Senate committee hearing under oath. A furious Brownback then placed a hold on Hill’s own nomination. The hold will remain until Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid schedules a vote, which will likely follow lengthy debate and protestations by Brownback.
In the end, Hill will be confirmed because of a breakdown in congressional oversight. To listen to Hill’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to realize that members of both parties know almost nothing about Hill, his record, or his background. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen ignorance clothed so pretentiously. The degree to which the “august” senators on the Committee have paid no attention to the conduct of policies they are charged with overseeing is depressing and stupefying, and yet it all somehow still makes for dreadfully dull viewing. So naturally, I’ll link to the entire two-hour hearing. I will confess that I did not listen to the entire thing, but I’d like to think that by now, some recently rendered Algerian jihadist in an underground cell in Albania is, and he’s about to break.
One of the loose questions that Agreed Framework II never quite answered was the question of That Other Reactor in North Korea. I don’t mean the 200-megawatt reactor that appears from these photos to be far from complete, or a smaller experimental reactor. I wonder instead how long it will be before our satellites will detect a flurry of activity around North Korea’s 50-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, which seems to have been completely untouched by Agreed Framework II. In 2005, however, the Washington Post reported that North Korea planned to complete construction of that reactor “in as little as two years, allowing it to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for 10 weapons annually,” representing “a tenfold leap in North Korea’s ability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons.” This makes economic sense from North Korea’s perspective. Why restart the 5-megawatt reactor that North Korea shut down in 2007 when it’s reportedly crumbling from old age anyway? If the North Koreans want to extort us, they’ll raise the ante. Having a larger reactor should leave North Korea with enough fissile material to perfect a sufficient arsenal for itself, and to sell off the excess to the highest bidder.