For some of us it’s already March; at Foggy Bottom, it’s forever Groundhog Day

Let’s drill down into the Post-Groundhog Day Agreement, starting with the text of the nearest thing we have to a written agreement, a State Department press release, which I produce here in its entirety:

A U.S. delegation has just returned from Beijing following a third exploratory round of U.S.-DPRK bilateral talks. To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities.

The United States still has profound concerns regarding North Korean behavior across a wide range of areas, but today’s announcement reflects important, if limited, progress in addressing some of these. We have agreed to meet with the DPRK to finalize administrative details necessary to move forward with our proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance along with the intensive monitoring required for the delivery of such assistance.

The following points flow from the February 23-24 discussions in Beijing:

– The United States reaffirms that it does not have hostile intent toward the DPRK and is prepared to take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.

– The United States reaffirms its commitment to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement.

– The United States recognizes the 1953 Armistice Agreement as the cornerstone of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

– U.S. and DPRK nutritional assistance teams will meet in the immediate future to finalize administrative details on a targeted U.S. program consisting of an initial 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need.

– The United States is prepared to take steps to increase people-to-people exchanges, including in the areas of culture, education, and sports.

– U.S. sanctions against the DPRK are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people. [U.S. Dep't of State]

Yes, that’s it. For the real substance, we have to turn back to the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, which set a speed record for North Korean deal-breaking — about 10 hours, when North Korea unilaterally declared that it wouldn’t disarm until we first built it two light-water reactors and restored full diplomatic relations. Presidents of both parties have since tried to hold the North Koreans to the 2005 statement, despite its significant flaws of both substance and clarity. After the 2005 deal came out, one influential congressional staffer — and yes, he’s still a very influential congressional staffer — e-mailed me with his own concerns about its many loopholes. For instance:

The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor to the DPRK.

Nope, no room for misunderstanding there! But then, given all that North Korea has done to advance its nuclear capability since then, it wouldn’t seem that lack of clarity is really the issue here.

Charles Krauthammer has questioned whether this deal covers both the uranium and the plutonium programs, given that the latter program isn’t specifically mentioned. I don’t see that as one of the greater issues here. The biggest problem is that we have no direct evidence of what the North Koreans have agreed to do at all. That being said, as far as we know, North Korea’s entire plutonium program is located at Yongbyon, and because the North Koreans agreed to freeze all nuclear activity at that location, it’s clear enough that at least Glyn Davies thinks the North Koreans agreed to freeze their plutonium program. (If the North Koreans ultimately disagree about what was said, of course, Selig Harrison is sure to insist that he misunderstood everything.)

This leads us to another gaping hole: location. The “agreement” covers nuclear activities at Yongbyon, but uranium programs, including centrifuges, can be hidden in caves and tunnels, and I have seen a number of recent reports suggesting that North Korea’s uranium program exists in multiple locations. So if the North Koreans are running centrifuges under some remote mountain, this deal doesn’t affect that in the least. All that prevents that is a series of ill-enforced U.N. Security Council resolutions, which we’re now paying the regime to violate slightly less than usual.

Here’s another peculiarity of the language in this statement: the moratorium on “nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon.” Mothers, this is why you must teach your children about the Oxford comma. Does that mean that North Korea has only agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests at Yongbyon, a place where they’ve never done their nuclear tests for obvious reasons? North Korea’s nuclear test site is at Mt. Mantap, on the east coast near Camp 16.

It’s interesting that it will take weeks, if not months, for the U.S. side to get its NGO partners and monitoring machinery in place, which means that this deal should begin to break down when the presidential contest is reduced to a Romney-on-Obama contest. I guarantee you that North Korea will try to frustrate whatever monitoring mechanisms we demand on both food aid and the actual freeze, and I also strongly doubt that USAID or State will want to call the North Koreans on that in an election year, knowing full well that the consequence would be a breakdown and more bellicose behavior — a nuke test, or maybe another artillery attack — from the North Koreans. And managing North Korea out of the headlines is the whole point of this deal. Thus, we have even less reason to expect transparency from the North Koreans than we usually do, which is probably why we’re also getting less transparency from our own State Department than usual. In the end, the only transparent thing about this deal — if it’s a deal at all — is how little it will accomplish for anyone but the president’s reelection campaign. But at least now, the issue is attracting some attention.

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