DPRK-ja-vu, all over again

by Michael Landweber | October 3rd, 2008 | |Subscribe

Another deal with North Korea is on the cusp of falling apart. Anyone who is actually surprised by this should feel free to leave a comment below.

So what happened this time? Mikhail Gorbachev says that the U.S. reneged on our deal with North Korea by leaving them on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. That’s a bit like the House Republicans saying that the first financial bailout bill failed because Nancy Pelosi made a partisan speech. It’s a convenient excuse, but it ignores the fundamentals of the situation.

The U.S.-DPRK deal failed because there may actually be no way to have a deal with the North Koreans. Sure, Christopher Hill, who has worked himself to the bone on this issue, just ended a visit to North Korea , defibrillator paddles in hand, to try and shock some life into this negotiation. It is unclear what effect his visit had.

What does North Korea want? How about a massive influx of aid and acknowledged global legitimacy without any changes to its repressive policies? If that is the case, does North Korea gain anything by negotiating away its main bargaining chip? Without nukes, the DPRK becomes Burma, just another small country ruled by a dictatorial regime that is a nuisance for its neighbors but otherwise can be pretty much ignored on the world stage.

The U.S. also has ulterior motives in any nuclear talks with the DPRK. Of course, there is a great deal of value in getting the regime to give up its nukes. But I don’t think many people trust them to follow through on definitively ending their nuclear weapons program. Verification is the root of what has gummed up the works this time around … and the time before … and the time before that. But the deeper issue for the U.S. is that we don’t want to do anything concrete that props up this regime.

That’s what led to the removal from the State Sponsors list being dangled as a carrot. The current list is Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. (Note that being on this list does not guarantee you a coveted spot as a member of the Axis of Evil.) According to the State Department, the “four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation under these authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.” However, it is important to note that removal from the list does not automatically benefit North Korea – there are many mechanisms for putting the same sanctions on countries that are not on this list.

(That said, it is not easy to be removed from the list once you have been designated. It is a political hot potato that requires a lot of tap dancing to explain why a certain country has changed its ways, a tough argument to make for North Korea. Two countries have made the jump recently: Libya, which changed its ways as a result of diplomatic arm-twisting, and Iraq, which changed as a result of somewhat-less-than-diplomatic arm-twisting.)

It is the flexibility inherent in the to-list-or-not-to-list question that led the Bush Administration to toss removal out as a carrot. It is a gesture, but does not have to be much more. Of course, North Korea understood this and countered with an incomplete accounting of its nuclear program and an offer to blow up a largely irrelevant structure for a photo op.

We’ve been here before. The Clinton Administration left office with an imperfect, but nonetheless important, agreement with North Korea. The Bush Administration scrapped it, tried to talk tough for a few years and then restarted the diplomatic process when it realized there were no other good options.

At the first Presidential debate, both McCain and Obama talked about North Korea. But mostly in terms of what the other party’s Administration had done wrong. Neither McCain nor Obama had any answers for dealing with the DPRK or, more importantly, any sense of having internalized the mistakes and the successes of the past. The DPRK doesn’t change for us based on Administration. No matter who is on the other side of the table, the North Koreans will remain infuriating and inscrutable.

We need historical perspective. There is 15 years of solid expertise with DPRK negotiations available. There is no time for a Clinton said, Bush said debate. Whoever becomes President needs to talk to all of the key negotiators from the past two Administrations and understand exactly what happened in every step of their various talks.

There may not be a good solution to the North Korean problem. But muddling around in the dark for even a single day of the new Administration because of an unwillingness to learn from the past is unacceptable.

1 Comment »

  1. Matt Rojansky wrote,

    Blundering negotiations with Pyongyang twice hasn’t cost us much other than time, and a bit of face, but the next time is likely to be our last. North Korea is the only state that has both nuclear weapons and a thinly veiled but very plausible policy of passing those weapons to terrorist groups. That puts the US in the impossible position of having to negotiate a denuclearization deal while maintaining a credible threat of nuclear retaliation against North Korea should a terrorist nuclear attack be traced to North Korean materials. As Mike rightly points out, the nukes themselves are the North Koreans’ only bargaining chips.

    Comment on October 3, 2008 @ 11:07 am

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