I’d say it’s more than slightly significant to see the editorial page of the Washington Post accusing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of (as Robert Gates put it) buying the same horse all over again:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was careful not to oversell the agreement, calling it “a modest first step in the right direction. Officials said it would allow inspectors to get a first look at the uranium enrichment facility constructed at Yongbyon while letting the United States test whether the new regime of Kim Jong Eun is serious about a more far-reaching accord to give up nuclear weapons.
It’s difficult to find any students of North Korea who expect such seriousness. Instead they point to the big short-term gains the twenty-something Mr. Kim will reap. The first will come on the “Day of the Sun,” April 15, when the regime will celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung. The youngest Kim will be able to point to the tribute being paid by the U.S. imperialists and also deliver a little on a promise that this year will bring greater prosperity.
As part of the bargain, the Obama administration effectively ratified the next generation of one of the world’s worst tyrannies, declaring that it has “no hostile intention” toward North Korea. There will be no inspection or accounting of North Korea’s existing arsenal of weapons, and its uranium enrichment will likely continue at undeclared sites beyond Yongbyon. The deal could weaken the pro-American South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak, which has taken a tough line on aid to the North, ahead of crucial parliamentary and presidential elections this year.
Oh, and the trigger for Pyongyang to renege is already built in. The regime said it would maintain the limited moratorium “while productive dialogue continues,” and spelled out what it expects: “the lifting of sanctions … and provision of light water reactors. If that’s not delivered — or if the United States insists on intrusive monitoring of the food aid — the nuclear inspectors will be booted back out.
So once again: Why buy this horse? The argument can be made that something, even a limited moratorium, is better than nothing. Maybe talks with North Korea will deter the new leader from misbehavior, such as more nuclear tests or military provocations of South Korea, if only for a while. But “stability” has been purchased not just at the price of 240,000 tons of food, but by sanctioning the continued oppression of 24 million people.
Jeez. I could have written that, except that I’d have made it funnier.
While you’re there, don’t miss this op-ed by Andrew Natsios, arguing that it was a mistake for Obama to link food aid to disarmament negotiations. In fact, Natsios almost seems to be saying we shouldn’t talk disarmament at all, which is something I almost agree with:
The purpose of humanitarian assistance under U.S. law and international humanitarian convention is to save lives and relieve suffering. It must not be used as a weapon of U.S. diplomacy and should not be manipulated by North Korean officials, military or secret police.
Aggressive monitoring is the only way to ensure that food aid goes to poor families. U.S. authorities should insist on expatriate monitors and translators, unannounced site visits and frequent nutritional monitoring. If monitoring agreements are violated, shipments of food aid should be stopped. Under no circumstances should U.S. food aid go through the Public Distribution System, which is a Stalinist means for Pyongyang to control the population and triage the powerless.
The latest nuclear negotiations are likely to yield what they have for 18 years: nothing. It is time to talk with the North Koreans about other things, such as their abysmal human rights record; the need for economic and political reforms; and health programs for children, many of whom face permanent damage from chronic malnutrition and preventable disease.
North Korea is dying. Its economic system is a wreck, and it cannot feed its people. Most North Koreans I have interviewed over the years privately admit all of this. Washington should do nothing to prolong the agony of the long-suffering North Korean people by supporting the existing system. But perhaps we can begin to push them toward reform.
I have tremendous respect for Mr. Natsios. Furthermore, he’s right that the administration shouldn’t disingenuously deny that there’s a quid pro quo here. The oily, smarmy deceptions of men like Glyn Davies and Chris Hill are the reason why people like me disbelieve almost everything the State Department says about North Korea, principally their assessments of how well North Korea is keeping its various disarmament commitments. It’s not unlike the AP’s own excessive entanglement with the North Korean regime sucking all of the credibility out of its reporting. But the more I think about this linkage issue, the less sure I am that that’s right. As compelling an argument as Natsios makes, however, it seems to me that the missing piece in all of our issues with North Korea is transparency. Why not make food aid the gateway test of North Korea’s willingness to accept transparency?