China's announcement on Saturday that negotiators have agreed on a blueprint for verifying North Korea’s nuclear disarmament is being seen as the latest in a string of hopeful signs. For a while, the drumbeat in Washington has been that the so-called six-party talks are going well and the North Korean nuclear program is well on its way to being contained. If only that were true.
In fact, the Kim Jong-il regime is getting exactly what it wants and using American hunger for diplomatic success to split us from our most important regional allies in the process. If this were high-stakes poker, the North Koreans would be biting their lips to hide their smiles at the cards in their hands.
As it stands now, we have agreed to ship North Korea a million new tons of fuel oil, released Mr. Kim from the handcuffs of our Trading With the Enemy Act, and — within the legally mandated 45 days — will throw in other goodies that come with removing North Korea from the State Department’s state-sponsor-of-terrorism list. This comes on top of the American decision last year to allow the North Koreans to transfer their tainted money out of a bank in Macao.
But the topper is that Kim Jong-il knows he still gets to keep his stockpile of plutonium and even hang on to his existing rack of nuclear weapons (minus the one he tested in October 2006 to set the tone of the game).
Nor are the North Koreans going to be required to fess up to the uranium-enrichment program they picked up from Pakistan earlier in the decade. Nor must they explain their role at the suspected nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert that Israeli jets were reported to have destroyed in 2007.
And while the North Koreans insist they have changed their ways, The Washington Post reported last month that traces of uranium were found on the very 18,000 pages of documents that North Korea submitted to the Washington in an effort to “come clean” on its programs.
Basically, all the North Koreans had to do for these latest concessions was to blow up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, a publicity stunt for which they billed the United States $2.5 million. Kim Jong-il’s plus-minus sheet looks decidedly better than ours.
The ugly truth is that North Korea no longer needed the creaking plutonium apparatus at Yongbyon — it was a liability to them, being visible to American bombers. Knocking down the cooling tower for the news cameras simply took away Washington’s ability to do the same in the dark of night. Far better to have a clandestine uranium enrichment program tucked away, safely underground.
Not only will our taking North Korea off the state-sponsored terrorist list strengthen the regime and reward those minimal responses, it is a direct blow to our strongest ally in the region, Japan, which believes it had at least 13 (and possibly dozens more) citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s.
Resolving this abductee issue goes to the fundamental integrity of the Japanese government. If the situation were reversed, and Americans were grabbed off a dark Florida beach by a Cuban patrol boat, we would go to war to bring them home.
But America has pledged to protect Japan in return for the Japanese forgoing offensive arms. Taking the Japanese abductees off the negotiating table while leaving North Korea with its existing weapons may cause Tokyo to question the utility of that pledge. North Korea’s missiles can’t hit us, but Japan is well within the kill zone.
No one should imply that North Korea is an easy nut to crack. Smart folks on both sides of the domestic political aisle have struggled with this challenge. North Korea has shown no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, and we are unfortunately not in a position to either force or entice it to do so. Despite all the spin out of the talks among the six concerned parties — China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States — there is no reason to honestly assume North Korea will ever give up its nuclear capability.
But things are not made any better by pretending that we are making progress, as Washington seems to have decided to do, or by ignoring the real concerns of our allies. Our approach to North Korea calls for a lot more honesty and, in the eyes of those with more at risk, a greater dose of sincerity. There is more at stake here than just North Korean bombs.
Art Brown, a 25-year veteran of the C.I.A. and the head of the Asia division of the agency’s clandestine service from 2003 to 2005.