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.]