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Why a freeze deal with North Korea is a lose-lose proposition

Two weeks ago, almost no one thought we’d see Agreed Framework 3.0 before January 2017. The Obama Administration is politically weakened and out of time, its foreign policy is even less popular than its domestic policy, and it will need all of its energy to finalize an Iran deal acceptable to this Congress. Top administration officials were publicly skeptical about comparisons between North Korea and Iran, and saying that North Korea wasn’t serious about denuclearization.

Last week, however, clear signs emerged that the administration is grasping for a deal with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that the U.S. and South Korea would engage in “exploratory” talks with North Korea without preconditions. North and South Korean envoys may have already begun those talks in Moscow. The timing favors Pyongyang, which never pays retail prices. It prefers to wait until U.S. and South Korean leaders are in the October of their tenures, when their approval ratings are low, and when the customary going-out-of business sales begin.

These talks could represent a policy shift by the Obama Administration, which had said until now that it wasn’t interested in talking to Pyongyang unless Pyongyang agreed that we’d be talking about its nuclear disarmament. Pyongyang isn’t willing to discuss that, but the administration is under pressure from the likes of Joel Wit, Robert Gallucci, and Bob Carlin to make a deal — any deal would be good enough — to freeze North Korea’s nuclear programs. This means we could only be talking about something along the lines of the ill-fated Leap Day deal.

But talks about a freeze deal are a losing proposition, whether they end in an agreement or not. The worst case would be a freeze deal that gives Pyongyang aid, security guarantees, and sanctions relief without securing an explicit commitment to disarm. That would throw away what little leverage we have left, and would be tantamount to recognizing Pyongyang as a nuclear power. Because of North Korea’s progress toward a uranium enrichment program — a program whose dangers Wit and Gallucci spent most of the last two decades minimizing — a freeze deal would probably be impossible to verify. At one time, David Albright also questioned that danger, but to his credit, he now concedes that the intelligence estimates he once doubted may have been right all along:

The worst case scenario is based on an assumption that the North has two centrifuges,[*] not only the one at the country’s main nuclear complex, but also a secret facility whose existence has been widely suspected but has not been confirmed, he said.

“I went from deeply skeptical to believing that it’s possible … that they have another major centrifuge plant. We have to do more work … to see if that’s true. But I take the U.S. assessment intelligence that there is this earlier centrifuge plant much more seriously now than I did maybe five, six years ago,” he said. [Yonhap]

At best, a freeze deal would only hold until Pyongyang reneges. That took a few months for the 2007 deal, and just six weeks for the 2012 Leap Day deal. At worst, it would be left to the next President to recognize when Pyongyang cheats. That would allow Wit, Gallucci, and Carlin to reprise their argument that we should let Pyongyang go right on cheating, and keep the aid flowing anyway.