Enabling North Korean Misconduct

First the Clinton administration fell for it. Now the Bush administration, failing to learn from Clinton’s mistake, is continuing down the same road. The North Korean dictatorship, having tested nuclear weapons and broken every agreement to stop developing more, is once again being coddled and cosseted by US presidents pretending to be tough with the Kim Jong-il regime.

Under the Clinton administration, the Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea, signed in October 1994, sought to freeze replacement of Pyongyang’s indigenous nuclear power plant program with less threatening light-water reactor plants, after which a structured program to normalize relations between the two countries would follow.
As North Korea had given 90-day advance notice of its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the US was pressured to negotiate such an agreement.

The agreement later provided for the North to shutdown its Yongbyon nuclear plant and abandon construction of two larger ones. Additional economic incentives were to flow to the North for its cooperation. Reportedly, Clinton officials only agreed to this arrangement as they believed the collapse of the regime to be imminent in the wake of the recent death of brutal leader Kim Il Sung. But, eventually the agreement broke down. Only years later would it be learned Pyongyang had been covertly working on a highly enriched uranium program.

Just before Clinton was to leave office in January 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a mad dash to Pyongyang in an effort to negotiate North Korean concessions to pave the way for a last minute visit by President Clinton. Her meeting with the uncharismatic and self-indulgent dictator, Kim Jong Il, failed to generate any such concessions.

In January 2000, a Republican president came to office determined to take a much different approach in dealing with the North Koreans.

Clinton’s softball approach had obviously failed, so President Bush was determined to play hardball. For much of his tenure, he refused to talk directly with the North Koreans, insisting instead on using the forum of the on-again/off-again Six-Party talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the US. But the North Koreans have had much more experience at playing hardball than have the Americans.

Pyongyang demanded and eventually got its wish for bilateral talks. Again an agreement was reached. Again they demonstrated an unconscionable proclivity to lie, cheat and steal — lying about the export of nuclear weapons technology; cheating on promises not to undertake certain nuclear weapons related activities; and effectively “stealing” US economic aid for doing nothing towards making the world a less dangerous place in which to live. And now, with the game in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Bush presidency, a Clintonesque effort seems to be afoot in hopes of salvaging a last-minute breakthrough with an recalcitrant Pyongyang.

The Six-Party talks had initially worked out a preliminary accord in September 2005, which was then built upon by a February 2007 agreement.

The good news is these agreements included many more concessions from the North than Clinton had negotiated; the bad news is the result, so far at least, is basically the same. Pyongyang at first refused, again, to shut down the Yongbang nuclear facility — the same facility the Framework Agreement sought to shut down. The North Koreans demanded funds in a Macao bank which had been frozen by an earlier US initiative — funds that were very important to a cash-strapped nation — be released before dismantling Yongbang. The US capitulated; the funds were released.

While dismantling activity has been undertaken at Yongbang under the Bush administration, a stumbling block remains as North Korea has refused to make a declaration, as required, of all its nuclear programs, including those involving technology transfer to other countries. It has been reluctant to do this, perhaps because it was caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar last September.

Israel, upon learning North Korean nuclear weapons technology had been transferred to Syria where a facility was being built, conducted a surprise air attack to destroy it. With Pyongyang’s hunger for cash, it is doubtful Syria was the only recipient of such technology. It is the extent of such transfers to Syria and other possible recipient countries that has the North Koreans balking. But it makes it imperative we demand full and verifiable disclosure by them before any further concessions are made by the US.

However, an ever-weakening hardball game plan and focus on salvaging a last minute agreement seems to be the clarion call as, once again, we are making unearned (by Pyongyang) and unwarranted concessions to the North Koreans. Secretary of State Rice recently suggested the US may first drop some sanctions against the North — waiting to verify the accuracy of any of the required nuclear program disclosures later as it will take time to do so.

An examination of the history of North Korea’s relations with the US and South Korea in the 55 years since the end of the Korean war is very telling. Repeated acts of unprovoked aggression, intimidation, deception and feigning improved relations for its own economic benefit are common North Korean practices. Such practices have worked to keep afloat a sinking economy and brutal regime in Pyongyang — a regime devoid of concern for anything other than its own survival at the price of the misery of its own citizens. The failure of either a softball or hardball approach by the US in making progress towards changing this and achieving stability in the region should give the next administration pause to reflect on why. The answer should be clear.

Pyongyang’s past actions totally undermine its credibility, yet the US continues to play the role of an enabler of North Korean misconduct. Just last week, the Bush administration played to get more time for North Korea to comply with promises it has broken repeatedly. It is a disgrace, a very dangerous one.
The only way to deal with the North Koreans is insisting on, and conducting, full verification in advance of rewarding them with benefits of any kind. Absent acceptance of such an approach — or a complete change in Pyongyang’s regime — our next President can only expect more of the same conduct. The lack of success by Presidents Clinton and Bush in neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear saber and saber-rattling should serve as a lesson that trust in dealing with Pyongyang can only come from prior verification.