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Diplomacy has costs. Tehran's mullahs will be watching.
In the transition from an old dictator to a new one, some observers were losing faith in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, believing it had lost its magic touch in the arts of dissembling. Others had deeper faith, though, and they were rewarded last week when the State Department proudly announced the umpteenth breakthrough toward the goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
The two sides agreed that Pyongyang would suspend uranium enrichment and other “nuclear activities” at its Yongbyon facility, allow very limited international inspection, and implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches. In State’s telling on Feb. 29, we gave nothing in return for the North’s (apparently) unilateral concessions, “designed to improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization.”
How sweet. Unfortunately, the Leap Day deal is worse than just another failed effort to chitchat North Korea out of its nuclear weapons. It provides a political and economic lifeline to Kim Jong Eun’s uncertain new regime, and it schools him on how to outwit America. Tehran’s mullahs will take careful note of the Obama administration’s desperation to announce a deal, any deal, that can be described as “progress” on the nuclear-proliferation front.
State’s pronouncement is extraordinarily limited in scope and verification. It contains nothing new or different from a long string of past “commitments” North Korea has broken and lied about with impunity. Pyongyang has repeatedly violated Security Council resolutions requiring it to cease nuclear and missile activities, a point conspicuously absent from our U.N.-centric administration’s publicity about the latest deal.
There’s no mention, for instance, of the North’s role, possibly financed or otherwise aided by Iran, in constructing a reactor in Syria, destroyed in 2007 by Israel, for which duplicity neither North Korea nor Syria nor Iran ever paid a price.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be limited to the Yongbyon facility, which is like looking at North Korea through a straw—and at the wrong place no less. The overwhelming mass of the North’s important nuclear-weapons activities have long been deeply buried in hidden locations, unknown even to U.S. intelligence, let alone IAEA inspectors.
Regarding ballistic missiles, there was a similar moratorium in 1998, after a North Korean Taepodong missile panicked Japan by flying over it and landing to its east. That moratorium also covered only launch testing, and not the countless other critical aspects of ballistic-missile development. In response, Pyongyang simply shifted to deeper cooperation with Iran, which uses the same Soviet-era Scud-missile technology, the ban thus driving the two rogue states closer.
Most objectionable morally, despite U.S. denials of a quid pro quo: We are providing 240,000 tons of food aid that will almost certainly be diverted to the DPRK military and other favored recipients. It is a strict canon of U.S. humanitarian assistance that such aid be closely monitored, but there is no reason to believe that monitoring will be any more effective than in the past. Make no mistake, we are simply feeding young Kim’s dictatorship.
This agreement is a sham, pure and simple—which the North’s separate communiqué highlights. Pyongyang emphasizes that the deal with Washington is a prelude to resuming the six-party talks (including South Korea, China, Russia and Japan), which will focus on “the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK and provision of light water reactors.”
Those are hallmarks of the failed 1994 Agreed Framework that the North never honored. If Pyongyang’s version of the deal is even vaguely true, it (plus the food aid we know about) flatly violates pledges like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s last year that “we do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table. We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take.”
With such predicates, why did the Obama administration proceed? Most likely, it followed ideology and habit. The diplomacy here is entirely faith-based, as in: “There’s nothing to lose, so why not try negotiation? Maybe this time it will work.”
But diplomacy, like all human activity, is never cost-free. There is always something to lose. In this instance, Washington’s declaration that it has no “hostile intent” toward North Korea reduces pressure on the undeniably vulnerable new regime, providing it at least a partial get-out-of-jail-free card for coming misbehavior.
What we should have done is concentrate on finding ways to exploit the North’s leadership transition in order to hasten Korean reunification. Unfortunately, last week’s deal is visible proof that President Obama never seriously contemplated undertaking this arduous but vital effort, which is now a lost opportunity. Instead, we have strengthened the DPRK’s confidence, sustained its nuclear-weapons and missile programs, and prolonged the agony of its people.
Iran, meanwhile, must be relishing this latest display of U.S. weakness and memory loss. Even as the acute threat of military force against Iran has been rising, Tehran sees with laser-sharp clarity that when the going gets tough, Team Obama gets negotiating.
The critical elements of the Leap Day deal are available for Tehran to use to its advantage: unverifiable moratoria, the resumption of long-failed negotiations that will buy it time, and the expectation of reduced economic pressure. Iran can even count on Mr. Obama to try to restrain Israel, its strongest and most determined regional opponent.
Undoubtedly, a campaigning President Obama, fearing that his much-touted foreign-policy successes are less than meet the eye, is looking for quick diplomatic triumphs. He certainly does not want inconvenient crises in Iran and North Korea erupting simultaneously later this year.
But whatever the electoral impact of the North Korea deal may be, its national-security consequences are all too painful. Let’s hope a new president can reverse them.
Mr. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
A version of this article appeared Mar. 8, 2012, on page A17 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama’s Sweet Deal for North Korea.
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