Commentary Magazine


Lessons Unlearned on North Korea

The latest collapse of nuclear negotiations with North Korea provides some clear lessons, but we are not learning them.

The New Year began with the flat refusal by Pyongyang to provide the inventory of her programs that she had promised. For good measure, North Korean state media editorialized on January 4th that “Our republic will continue to harden its war deterrent further in response to the US stepping up its nuclear war moves.”

Today’s Washington Post indicates we still do not grasp the situation. It quotes envoy Christopher Hill: “We understand that this [preparation of an inventory] is always a difficult process, one that is rarely completed on time. So I think we have to have a little sense of patience and perseverance.” Such self-deception is inexcusable: we’ve been through this cycle of negotiation-to-a-dead-end twice now.

When North Korea’s nuclear program became known in 1993, President Bill Clinton talked tough. Speaking to Meet The Press from the Oval Office on November 7, 1993 he declared “North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. We must be very firm about it,” and spoke of possible “conflict.” Clinton changed course, reportedly after a briefing on military options that terrified him. The first cycle of negotiations ensued, with a never-fulfilled agreement in 1994 to dismantle in return for U.S. aid.

George W. Bush took up this refrain again, pledging that “I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons”. But in 2003 the Six Party Talks marked a return to the diplomatic track.

In the fifteen years wasted by these negotiations, North Korea has presumably perfected her nuclear capability. Our close allies the Japanese have, meanwhile, been angered by the American willingness to sacrifice Japanese concerns–about their citizens who have been abducted by Pyongyang—in order not to upset imaginary progress being made in the talks. What are the lessons? First, you cannot negotiate away nuclear capabilities. Second, military options do not really exist. Finally, and most worryingly, the very process of negotiation gives us a stake in the survival of the regime with which we are engaging. We’re becoming ever more committed to the survival of the regime that we originally identified as the problem.

Soon I expect we will be hearing calls for the U.S. to help stabilize North Korea after Kim Jong Il, even in the absence of that country’s abandonment of nuclear weapons.

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