As the Obama Administration works toward an agreed framework with Iran, a curious division is emerging among its defenders. On one hand, the administration and its supporters are understandably rejecting comparisons to the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. The State Department insists that “[t]he comprehensive deal we are seeking to negotiate with Iran is fundamentally different than what we did in terms of our approach to North Korea,” and will require more intrusive inspections “because of the lessons we learned from the North Korea situation.”
These unfavorable comparisons, however, have bruised the ex-diplomats who still see the 1994 Agreed Framework as their magnum opus:
Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not. Without the 1994 deal, North Korea would have built the bomb sooner, stockpiled weapons more quickly and amassed a much larger arsenal by now. Intelligence estimates in the early 1990s concluded that the North’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. More than 20 years later, that still hasn’t happened. [Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, N.Y. Times]
Shortly after it signed AF1, the Clinton Administration found out that North Korea was cheating by building a secret uranium enrichment program. Because uranium programs are easier to hide than plutonium programs, overlooking this and giving Kim Jong Il regime-sustaining aid, diplomatic cover, and (unless they were also willing to walk away) de facto permission to go on cheating would have been a short-term benefit and a long-term liability for the security of the United States and its allies. The uranium program may have been in its early stages then, but the more it progressed, the harder it would have been to force Kim Jong Il to dismantle it. George W. Bush was right to realize this, but he was too distracted by Iraq, too ill-advised by his diplomats, and too indecisive to respond to it coherently. Instead, he vacillated between tough talk, weak sanctions, a brief interlude of sanctions that worked, and inept diplomacy, culminating in AF2 in 2007. There are many good reasons to damn George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but the collapse of AF1 is the least of them.
More fundamentally, we’re speaking of North Korea, a state that broke an Armistice, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, five U.N. Security Council Resolutions, a 1999 missile moratorium, the 2007 agreed framework, the 2005 joint statement, the 2012 Leap Day deal, a slew of agreements governing the Kaesong Industrial Park, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What made AF1 different from the rest of these broken deals? How many times must a frog be stung to see the scorpion’s nature? Even so, 1994 was many broken agreements ago. That makes it slightly easier to argue that AF1 was worth trying than AF2 (although Joel Wit has the unique qualification of being associated with both of them). For Gallucci and Wit to concede AF1’s failure in retrospect would not necessarily draw harsh judgment from their peers, even if AF1’s legacy and Pyongyang’s record speak plainly for themselves. It would not necessarily establish that their experience with AF1 is less of a qualification than the opposite. But their refusal to concede its failure, even after all we’ve learned, does.
The collapse of the North Korea deal has been used to argue that it is impossible to conduct diplomacy with rogue states. But the only litmus test that matters is whether an agreement serves our national interest, is better than having no deal at all, and is preferable to military force. The arrangement with Iran appears to be well on its way to meeting that standard. [Gallucci & Wit]
And inevitably, we are offered the false choice of appeasement or war. But the real litmus test is whether other options might have saved a deal that wasn’t necessarily flawed on paper, or alternatively, given us a more trustworthy partner to negotiate with. Those options might have included tougher sanctions supported by (rather than subverted by) diplomacy, to cut the flow of Chinese and South Korean cash to Pyongyang, and more subversive engagement with North Korea’s disgruntled and dispossessed.
As a result, the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions. This does not excuse the North’s behavior, but it does show these deals require constant attention. [Gallucci & Wit]
That is to say, Gallucci and Wit contend that North Korea has nuclear weapons, not because North Korea wanted nuclear weapons, but because Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to grant Kim Jong Il’s regime more aid and full diplomatic relations as it cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework. Are there limits to the concessions Gallucci and Wit would have granted while Kim Jong Il went on with his uranium program? Are there limits to the amount of cheating or provocation that would have finally been too much for even them? Are there limits to how far they would they have let North Korea’s uranium program go before walking away from AF1? If so, it’s not evident from their op-ed. Nor is it encouraging that Gallucci and Wit already concede that “we should not be surprised if Tehran is caught cheating.” I wouldn’t be, but Gallucci and Wit would make a stronger case by revealing what they would do to get Iran back in line with its obligations, when they would walk away, and what their Plan B would be. If you go into any negotiation without knowing those answers, you aren’t really negotiating.
At least John Delury explains just how far he would have been willing to take this, which is helpful, because it helps us understand how far we should take his counsel.
The central lesson of the failed diplomacy with North Korea is that even the best nuclear deal with Iran is merely a prelude to the real diplomatic drama. To ensure that Tehran does not go the way of Pyongyang, the nuclear accord must be followed by the creation of a framework for fundamentally new Iranian relations with the United States, the region, and the international community. The United States’ nuclear deal with Korea wasn’t enough on its own—and its deal with Iran won’t be, either. [John Delury, Foreign Affairs]
Unlike Delury, the central lesson I draw is that even a nominally useful deal becomes useless when one party is pathologically mendacious, and the other party is emotionally and irredeemably predisposed to denial, and unwilling to hold the first party to the terms. Even the best deal is worse than useless when its benefits to the cheating party exacerbate the very problems it was intended to address. Yet Delury’s faith in Kim Jong Il’s intentions extends to preposterous proportions:
Had the United States made an all-out effort to sign a peace treaty and guarantee North Korean security, while also lifting sanctions and encouraging economic integration in the region, North Korea could have been another Asian communist success story, without needing nuclear weapons. But Clinton’s big push came too late, and then George W. Bush dealt this fragile process a death-blow by walking away from the table. [Delury]
Delury assumes that Pyongyang is interested in “fundamentally new relations” that would have American journalists and food aid workers crawling all over North Korea, speaking almost freely to starving villagers and factory workers, and taking selfies in front of missile bases and gulags. Myself, I’m much less sure that Pyongyang wants this. And then, there is the example of the Sunshine Policy, which also failed to change the scorpion’s nature, as Sue Terry and Max Boot point out:
In short, North Korea was cheating both before and after the signing of the Agreed Framework. It did so in spite of the copious benefits flowing to the country as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, through which, from 1998 to 2008, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pumped approximately $8 billion in economic assistance into North Korea in the hope of improving bilateral relations. Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Peace Prize for meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 2000—a summit, it was later divulged, that was made possible only through the payment of a $500 million cash bribe to Kim Jong Il. [Sue Terry and Max Boot, Foreign Affairs]
Delury breezily throws out that “six years of patient sanctions has not stopped Pyongyang from making dramatic progress in its uranium enrichment and missile programs,” and then proceeds straight to the false choice argument. One must catch him mid-sentence to note that he reveals no sign of having read the sanctions, but perhaps he’ll offer us his own legal analysis of what the sanctions are, what they are not.
Why was there no settlement? Simply put, domestic politics undermined prudent foreign policy. One month after Clinton signed the Agreed Framework, the success of the Republican Party in the 1994 U.S. midterm elections turned Congress into a fortress of obstruction. [Delury]
That is, the elected representatives of the American people were unwilling to establish full diplomatic relations with a state that was breaking its word and lying about it, and that inflicts this on its people and lies about that, too. The idea must have taken hold among the bourgeoisie in flyover country that it is immoral and unwise to trust and perpetuate a state founded on secrecy, mendacity, xenophobia (especially anti-Americanism), and an utter disregard for human life. Not even a frog has to be stung twice to understand the scorpion’s nature, yet to this day, Gallucci (and let’s remember, whatever his judgment, Gallucci is a man of integrity) is counseling us to cut yet another freeze deal with the North Koreans — a deal only he, Stephen Bosworth, and a few of the frogs in the adjacent wells believe the North Koreans have any serious interest in.
It takes a willful denial of reality to claim, as Gallucci, Wit, and Delury do, that the United States was at fault for the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean negotiations. A dispassionate reading of the evidence suggests that North Korea was never serious about giving up a nuclear program into which it had invested decades—not to mention billions of dollars—and that it saw as vital to regime protection and internal legitimacy. If North Korea has not developed as many nuclear weapons as U.S. intelligence agencies once feared, that is most likely a side effect of the regime’s dysfunction rather than any lack of desire to acquire more weapons. [Terry & Boot]
The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, writing at The National Interest, brings us back to the central flaw of the agreed frameworks with North Korea — that even a good agreement can’t survive when entrusted to men and women of subpar judgment. It’s an argument that Wit, Gallucci, Delury do much to validate:
Arms Control Advocates Reject Evidence of Cheating
Pyongyang serially deceived, denied, and defied the international community. Yet arms control proponents responded to growing evidence of North Korean cheating by doubting, dismissing, deflecting, denouncing, deliberating, debating, dawdling, delaying, demanding, and eventually dealing.
These “experts” initially rejected intelligence reports of North Korea’s plutonium weapons program, its uranium weapons program, complicity in a Syrian nuclear reactor, and steadily increasing nuclear and missile capabilities. [Bruce Klingner, The National Interest]
Wit, for example, questioned the scale and significance of intelligence estimates about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program just three years before Pyongyang revealed the existence of a “vast” program of perhaps thousands of centrifuges — a program that posed “both a horizontal and a vertical proliferation threat,” and was an “avenue for North Korea to increase the number and sophistication of its nuclear weapons.” Klingner also adds another important and related point:
The International Community Doesn’t “Snap-Back”
The UN has shown a remarkable ability to emit a timid squeak of indignation when its resolutions are blatantly violated and then only after extensive negotiations and compromise. Hampered by Chinese and Russian obstructionism, the UN Security Council has been limited to lowest-common denominator responses.
He might have taken this a step further: neither President Bush nor President Obama snapped back after North Korea broke AF2 or the Leap Day deal. Despite Obama’s campaign promise to reimpose sanctions if North Korea didn’t keep its word, two nuke tests later, he still hasn’t. Executive Order 13,570 largely reimposed the import restrictions Bill Clinton relaxed in 1999 in response to a short-lived missile moratorium (yes, North Korea broke that freeze deal, too). The total dry weight of the sanctions President Obama has imposed under Executive Orders 13382, 13551, and 13687 is still much less than what George W. Bush lifted with respect to North Korea’s money laundering through our financial system and its previous listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.
What this really comes down to is whether you believe the better way to protect a diplomatic process is to excuse the parties from their obligations and throw tribute at cheaters, or to extract a heavy enough price for violations to give the other party some incentive to get back into compliance. I don’t claim to have a deep understanding of the Iran deal — in part because most of its terms are either undisclosed, disputed, or yet to be resolved — but any defense of it that also defends the agreed frameworks with North Korea does much to persuade me that an agreed framework with Iran would be equally doomed.