Writing with Robert Gallucci in The New York Times, Stephen Bosworth writes that the North Koreans, contrary to countless public and private statements that its nukes are non-negotiable, are ready to enter disarmament negotiations in good faith, and that we should give them shiny objects for doing that:
The North Koreans — who are longtime participants in government-to-government talks and well plugged-in to their country’s leadership — stated that if dialogue were to resume, their nuclear weapons program would be on the negotiating table. They provided preliminary thinking on a phased approach that would start with a freeze of their program and end with denuclearization.
That process, they said, would have to include steps by America, such as the conclusion of a peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice that ended the Korean War, and the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on the North by the United States since the end of that war. [Robert Gallucci and Stephen Bosworth, New York Times]
Note well the words “such as.” In the language of My People — legalese — this translates to “including but not limited to.” And with respect to sanctions, the North Koreans appear to understand them as little as most American ex-diplomats and academics do. They’re going to be awfully disappointed when they see how little there is to lift, especially given that most remaining U.S. sanctions are mandated by the U.N. Security Council and can’t be lifted unilaterally.
We stressed that Pyongyang needs to indicate clearly the concrete steps it would take both before and immediately after a return to the negotiating table. The North Koreans told us that they were prepared to enter talks without preconditions and would consider some confidence-building measures once talks begin.
Maybe they can blow up another cooling tower; if they start the construction now, it might even be ready in time for the deal. If we front them some “development aid” now, it might even be enough to finance the construction (win-win, people!).
You can already see that I don’t believe what Bosworth and Gallucci are saying, but so what? The more interesting question is whether they do, and in Bosworth’s case at least, there’s reason to doubt it. Here’s what he told us a few months ago:
The former U.S. point man on North Korean diplomacy, Amb. Stephen Bosworth, is making the rounds in Seoul this week with a sharp message: it’s time for the countries pushing North Korea to denuclearize to acknowledge they may never be able to get a verifiable deal.
For years, the stated goal of U.S. and other countries that are trying to end North Korea’s nuclear pursuit has been “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID in dip-speak.
The problem is that following North Korea’s revelation in November 2010 to a visiting U.S. scientist of an operating uranium enrichment program, even if countries could persuade North Korea to accept an aid-for-denuclearization deal, there’s no way to verify they are sticking to it.
“Because of the nature of that technology, it would be almost impossible to verify North Korea’s compliance with any ban on enriched uranium production,” Mr. Bosworth said. Uranium enrichment can happen in small facilities whose activities are hidden from satellites, forcing verification experts to take North Korea’s word on compliance.
Instead, he recommends that South Korea, the U.S. and other countries negotiate a “standstill agreement” in which North Korea halts tests of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles – something that could be monitored. [Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal]
So what are the North Koreans (and Bosworth) selling us this time if disarmament is an implausible goal? Bosworth has admitted that this a deal that we can never verify, and in his Times op-ed, he concedes that “[t]he North Koreans have not abided by many of their past commitments.”
But as he and Gallucci ask, not unreasonably, what’s wrong with just talking? Answer: the cover charge. We’ve seen this cycle repeat itself too many times to doubt that the first round of talks will be about paying, which throws away the very leverage we’ll need to get a good deal and make it work. They believe that the best way to disarm North Korea is to legitimize, stabilize, finance (you know that’s coming) and perpetuate a regime whose downfall would, mostly likely, result in verifiable disarmament, but whose perpetuation equates to a nuclear North Korea whose nuclear and chemical weapons technology will continue to provoke crises around the world.
But even if this deal could be negotiated, it would be dead on arrival at Capitol Hill. During my stint there, I visited nearly every congressional office of either party and several key committee offices to talk about North Korea policy. Given the weakness of its foreign policy cred today, it’s doubtful that the administration would invest in this deal. If it did, it would not be a replay of the government shutdown that split the Republicans; it’s the Democrats who would split this time. Congress killed Agreed Framework I by defunding it after we caught North Korea cheating. When Chris Hill came to Congress to sell Agreed Framework II, he promised that it would not be a deal where North Korea pretended to disarm, and we’d pretend to believe them. That’s a promise that Bosworth couldn’t make to sell Agreed Framework III. He wouldn’t be the one making it, of course, but even a Democratic Congress would have to demand robust verification.
(A tangent: One reason why the Times still prints these anachronisms is the success of their proponents at pretending that better alternatives don’t exist (the unteachability of its editors is another). What a gift it must seem to them at times like these to read calls from the other extreme for President Obama to consider preemptive airstrikes. This call is from an unlikely source — two German authors, who remind me that as little as I like the insufferable sanctimony of the new Germany, I still like the old Germany much less.)
Bosworth and Gallucci are right about one of their arguments — North Korea continues to advance its nuclear and missile programs full-bore, and the Obama Administration shows no hint of a coherent and decisive policy to reverse or arrest that trend. Their answer to that, however, is the classic definition of insanity.
To Bosworth and Gallucci, sanctions are an obstacle; in reality, they’re a vehicle. Talks can’t work unless Kim Jong Un (or his replacement, should sanctions dethrone him) is prepared to disarm. Everyone either knows that he isn’t, or should. Negotiations won’t work without leverage, sanctions are the best leverage we have, and our sanctions against North Korea are much too weak to give us that leverage. As I’ll explain in greater detail in a future post, our North Korea sanctions are a shadow of the targeted sanctions that are working in Iran, or the broad and blunt ones that aren’t working in Cuba, to name two. (If you can’t wait, read the statutes and regulations yourself.)
Despite some early and hopeful signs, it’s far from clear that sanctions have put life-altering pressure on Kim Jong Un, despite the fact that he sounds desperate to get them lifted. He still has the money and materials to keep building amusement parks, ski resorts, and missile sites. All outward signs tell us that he sees sanctions are a mere annoyance, and the sanctions that annoy him most are probably those on luxury goods imports, which are logically unrelated to disarmament and, aside from being a general pressure tactic, are aimed at his obscene starvation of his own people. If these are the sanctions Kim Jong Un wants us to lift, a logical counter would be to offer to ask the Security Council to suspend them, but only temporarily, and in exchange for lifting all restrictions on the delivery of food aid. That would seem to be a good early test of the North’s seriousness about accepting some transparency, a sine qua non of effective diplomacy. But, as at least Bosworth knows, that sine qua non is lacking here.