Yay, nuclear blackmail! Obama Admin caves on N. Korea denuclearization, human rights in face of nuke test threat (Updated)

The Nuclear Threat Initiative Newswire, citing Yonhap, reports that the Obama Administration, South Korea, and Japan have agreed to a major shift in its policy toward talks with North Korea, “easing its conditions for returning to nuclear talks,” out of fear of a new nuclear test on the eve of mid-term elections in South Korea and the United States.

Since before Obama’s inauguration, North Korea has repeatedly said that it would never give up its nuclear weapons programs. Until now, the administration had taken the position that the purpose for having the six-party denuclearization talks was denuclearization, and that there was no point in returning to talks unless North Korea agreed that the talks were leading toward North Korea’s denuclearization at some point. Here is how Secretary of State John Kerry put it in February:

We have yet to see evidence that North Korea is prepared to meet its obligations and negotiate the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Let me be clear: The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. We will not accept talks for the sake of talks. And the D.P.R.K. must show that it will negotiate and live up to its commitments regarding denuclearization. [John Kerry]

In Washington, however, “let me be clear” is politispeak for “here comes a talking point I’m going to repeat until I abandon it under political pressure.” And true to this rule, NTI reports that we will abandon that talking point — sorry, principle — in favor of a return to one of the most memorable flops in the history of North Korea diplomacy:

Washington, along with allies Seoul and Tokyo, now wants North Korea to accept a moratorium on its nuclear weapons development in order for the frozen six-nation, aid-for-denuclearization negotiations to be resumed, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday, citing an informed diplomatic insider.

The negotiations involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States were last held in December 2008. They propose to reward Pyongyang’s gradual and irreversible denuclearization with timed infusions of economic assistance and international treaties.

“Two principles have been set,” said the source. “The first is to make practical progress in denuclearizing North Korea and the second is to prevent the North from sophisticating its nuclear capability.”

Yay, nuclear blackmail! Now that the administration thinks the North Koreans are about to test a nuke, it’s floating this trial balloon, signaling that it’s ready to drop long-standing U.S. demands from disarmament to a freeze.

Fortunately, there are no signs that the North Koreans are ready to take this deal, but if they were smart, they would, because accepting it now — after demonstrating their leverage over Obama — could put them on a path toward de-facto recognition as a nuclear state. The administration will insist, of course, that the eventual goal of the talks is still denuclearization, but North Korea has never been more forceful in insisting that it will never give up its nukes, or more ferocious in reacting to any such suggestion. At its moment of diplomatic triumph, Pyongyang almost certainly would not sign off on place-holder language adopting, for example, the September 19, 2005 joint statement (which North Korea unilaterally reinterpreted into meaninglessness within a day of signing it).

If the administration is really desperate for a deal — and it certainly looks desperate — it will simply obscure that question within a cloud of inky unwritten commitments. That seems to be the plan this time, too. The offer on the table now is a revival of the ill-fated Groundhog Day Leap Day deal of 2012, which promised aid (and other things we’ll get to later) in exchange for a freeze (not a dismantling) of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Because nothing was reduced to writing, however, the Leap Day “deal” began to unravel almost immediately, as it became clear that the parties walked way from it with at least three different understandings. Would the WMD moratorium would be in effect while talks continued? Which would arrive first, the IAEA monitors or the aid? You’d think that a competent diplomat would have said what a competent lawyer would say: “Get it in writing.” In the end, there wasn’t even a written agreement that the North Koreans would shut down the Yongbyon reactor; the North Koreans omitted any mention of that when they announced the deal. Just 16 days after it was “agreed,” the Leap Day deal collapsed when North Korea announced a long-range ballistic missile test. The Obama Administration now proposes to pour its entire North Korea policy into this leaky vessel.

(Also, it has to be awkward to offer food aid right after the World Food Program found major deficiencies in its program to monitor the distribution of that aid. Aid monitoring conditions made up a large part of the 2012 deal. Congress would also have a say, as its last Appropriations Act put strict limits on aid to North Korea. A new aid package might require a special appropriation, which seems extremely unlikely.)

It would be bad enough if this offer had been a long-standing element of a policy that laid out a progression toward disarmament. It’s far worse that it is revived now, as a policy shift offered in response to (and therefore, as an incentive for) blackmail. Instead of a coherent policy that focuses economic, financial, humanitarian, diplomatic, and subversive pressure in an integrated campaign to change the security calculations (or failing that, the personnel composition) of the regime in Pyongyang, the administration appears to have no coherent North Korea policy at all. It looks passive, reactive, unplanned, and uncoordinated. The signals being sent from Seoul and Tokyo are equally confusing and uncoordinated — so much so that that topic merits its own post — but the real point is that if the U.S. doesn’t coordinate those policies (and it isn’t) then North Korea will divide us from our allies with clever inducements, and entropy will prevail. Deal or no deal, our diplomats are being outsmarted, bluffed, and blackmailed by a man who has never met a foreign leader or diplomat, but who has met Dennis Rodman three times.

What else did the U.S. agree to in the 2012 Leap Day deal? “[T]o take steps to improve our bilateral relationship in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.” (As an aside, who believes that the United States and Pyongyang are equals in any conceivable way?) Pyongyang will certainly understand that as a concession that the U.S. will sit back and do nothing of consequence later today, when Justice Michael Kirby goes to the Security Council to call for action to address the world’s worst human rights crisis. Sidelining that issue until the world forgets about it again would, by itself, be a very big win for North Korea and China.

Everything about this report sounds like a trial balloon (or a lead balloon — choose your own metaphor). Within a day or two, the administration may well deny this report — and they’ll certainly deny how I characterize it here — but I doubt that Yonhap reporters simply invented it. Far too many elements of this story fit with other things we’ve seen.

For instance, it would explain the conspicuous silence of Samantha “Genocide Chick” Powers in the face of the U.N. report finding that North Korea is committing crimes against humanity. It would explain all of those suspicious diplomatic moves last month (same link, below the embedded video). It would explain why Bob King, our Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, is saying that human rights and nuclear issues will remain separate, allowing the State Department to sideline the entire human rights issue, as it did in 2007. It would explain those “secret” talks between North Korea and Japan, given that Abe was Prime Minister in 2007, when the State Department betrayed him by sidelining the abduction issue in Agreed Framework 2.0. It would explain why the administration has kept its North Korea sanctions sluggish, incremental, and thus easily evaded.

And of course, the timing is right — second-term administrations do deals like this when they’re weakened politically, when they lack the political energy to implement anything more plausible, and when they really just want to buy time and make a quiet exit. But for the victims of North Korea’s pathology — North Koreans, South Koreans, Japanese, Syrians, and eventually Americans — there is no escape.

 

[Note: This post was edited after publication, including correction of the date of the 2005 Joint Statement. Thanks to a reader for pointing that out.]

Update, 24 April: This statement from the White House sounds (sort of) like a denial of the Yonhap report.

“Given the recent North Korean statements threatening new type of nuclear tests, new type of missile tests, it’s clear that North Korea is not signaling any interest in what we would consider to be credible and authentic negotiations,” Evan Medeiros, Obama’s key aide on Asia policy, said at a Foreign Press Center briefing here. “In that context, you know, we’re looking for some sign they’re actually committed to denuclearization.”

He was referring to efforts to restart the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Last held in December 2008, the negotiations also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The statement could just as well be a recognition of North Korea’s clear signals that it’s not interested in denuclearization, and appears ready to proceed with a test. One wonders what the White House would be saying now if the North Koreans sent a signal they were receptive to the deal. A separate report lends credence to that view:

The top nuclear envoys of the United States and China held in-depth talks last week, bridging their differences on ways to resume long-stalled nuclear talks with North Korea, according to China’s foreign ministry Monday.

Obviously, I don’t know who gave in to whom, but I have my own ideas about that. The subject of those talks was preconditions for restarting talks. Overall, it suggests that the administration was ready to lower the bar, but for North Korea’s own disinterest in talking.

7 Comments

  1. Several blurred lines with the Administration now. With Syria’s use of chemical weapons that was a “red line” they were not supposed to cross. Then there’s NK (above)…and now with Russia the Pres. seems to call Putin and have a “serious and frank” discussion with him…but it doesn’t seem to change things.




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  2. Eventually, Japan will finally start building its own nuclear arsenal, in a clear response to Nork Empire nuclear weapons, and a clear response to the effective Barack administration withdrawal of the American nuclear umbrella. After all, I would not count on this guy to help the defense of my nation – writing this both from the perspective of a treaty ally, and from my own perspective as an American. Japan’s pending move alone should concentrate the minds of Zhongnanhai wonderfully, but it probably won’t. South Korea, in its own response to Norkland and / or Japan, might well decide to join the club. Possibly Taiwan as well. Taiwan has its own motivations, and recently, the young people of Taiwan occupied parliament to make just this point. Maybe Singapore will join the party. Of course, Singapore is kinda small . . . just like Israel. My bad – our Israeli friends have no proven nuclear weapons. At all. Then again, the Philippines and especially our Vietnamese friends moved past the post WWII / post Cold War I economic basket case development model, and if sufficiently pressed, could probably and eventually figure out a way to build, afford, and / or acquire these weapons themselves. Australia is a big, wealthy place, and IIRC, has plenty of yellowcake. It really does not matter if all these dominoes started out in a sequential line, and they fall sequentially, or they all stood in a circle around a single event – the Nork Empire nuclear adventure – and they all fall simultaneously. These nations can afford and / or build nuclear forces of their own, and if not now, then in the very near future. Again, as we all know, our Israeli friends do NOT have merchandise / skills / etc. available for customers who would rather buy than build.

    This whole thing has irony, because China muscled into the East / South China seas and the Senkakus, and bought a shiny new aircraft carrier, to prove that they do not want foreigners to encircle them. Past the eastern neighbors, their Russian and Pakistani friends have lotsa nukes. India has nukes as well. China will pretty much engineer and guarantee its complete encirclement – NUCLEAR encirclement – all because it supported the Nork Empire nuclear adventure. Most of China’s neighbors have cause for hostility, too. Hmmmm . . .




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  3. In light of Japan’s historical attitudes towards nuclear weapons, I think a nuked-up Japan is highly unlikely. If anything, I would think Japan would be most likely to find a non-nuclear solution to the problem of North Korea.




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  4. NK doesn’t keep testing because it wants to quiet down threats internal and external. It keeps testing because it has to in order to maintain a bona fide nuclear weapons development program. So deferring tests in whatever way possible -and we have the right and the means to play this pad a deux of endless deferral of inaction- is a smart move on our part. Let us get together and talk about nothing. The status quo ante only remains the status quo ante until it doesn’t. And although the current head psychopath in charge looks potentially the cruellest of the three, he also looks by far the dumbest. Thus, with a few intelligent foreign dip corps strategists around, this guy can be fooled.




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  5. Dan, I incline toward the view that North Korea does so for both reasons — and also for domestic consumption — but for the sake of argument, I’ll accept your explanation. I agree that KJU probably wants nukes more than he wants our aid. He seems to be flush with cash from somewhere. I think your explanation is consistent with North Korea’s response to Leap Day, which was to acknowledge nothing with respect to Yongbyon, and to proceed with testing an ICBM (the same explanation should apply to missiles, after all). On the other hand, it also explains why these deals never really manage to defer North Korea’s WMD programs, and why they really aren’t smart moves at all.

    I’ll also accept that KJU is an idiocrat. There have been many debates about what he controls and what he doesn’t, most of them speculative. I’ve been on both sides of that debate myself. But I’d be cautious about assuming that KJU is directing the nuclear negotiating strategy. Maybe he is, in which case, he’ll squander this tremendous opportunity and test anyway. Maybe he isn’t, in which case, some smarter diplomat will take this deal, run like a thief, and defer the test until July. Unfortunately, the evidence I see is that our own diplomats lack either the bandwidth, the backing from above, or the guile to outwit the North Koreans at the table. What I see looks more like a race to the bottom in terms of quality of diplomacy.




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  6. Sadly, I think the takeaway here is that the UN report on North Korea had zero impact on the White House. This is the same empty rhetoric we’ve always heard – that the United States “will not accept” a nuclear North Korea, though we’re not really going to do anything about it either.




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  7. We should play the game that the North itself plays, but we should play it with even greater intensity. Start with talks about talks about talks. Meet whichever low individual operates as secretary to the regimes mouthpiece at the UN in a New York coffee shop. Paint on a big smile and reflect back at them the same simpering weak grimace they customarily wear to such human contact events, the one that says I am a human being, too, with a heart beat and a family, if only there was a way out of this mess. Keep meeting them. Lie at every turn, if necessary. But make no promises. Tantalising hints at a netherworld of big sudden cash inflows can be made but nothing documented or substantifiable. At the same time, just as the North does, act in the opposite spirit. Ensure that any sanctions in operation are quietly tightened. Expedite the progress of North Korean human rights issues at every public forum in which they appear. Cooperate with the South to infiltrate USB sticks and cellular phone technology at any point into the country. By achingly slow degrees the level or status of these talks can be elevated, but not until they have provided human intel on the status of figures in the newish regime and the relationships between those figures, if such information can be adroitly extracted. The North will eventually yell out loud or recognize the game and itself shift track.




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