Progress on North Korea: But at What Cost?


This is a nice dose of good news for once. North Korea has agreed to begin permanently dismantling its main nuclear reactor in exchange for a pile of aid from the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia.
I have written about Asst. Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill before and surmised that if he was given some running room to construct a deal with North Korea, he could walk the situation back from the brink.
This deal could still blow up. That would not be out of character for either the North Korean side — nor the U.S.
However, somehow Hill has been able to successfully sideline and silence naysayers in Cheney’s wing of the national security establishment and keep them from undermining his work.
The fact that Under Secretary of State for International Security and Arms Control Robert Joseph had resigned may have been a key “environmental positive” in getting this right with North Korea this round. The absence of Ambassador John Bolton‘s bluster at the U.N. also helped improve the negotiating environment.
There is one thing I fear in this success in Asia though — when all other eyes have been turned towards Iran and Iraq.
It seems that one of the reasons why the U.S. ignored a serious Iran proposal for comprehensive negotiations leading to normalization in March/April 2003 was that Secretary of State Powell and his staff worried that moving forward on an Iran effort would so antagonize Cheney that they would not get agreement from the White House to push forward on the fragile deal-making getting the North Korea-focused Six Party Talks going.
In other words, Powell and Co. — in addition to Cheney’s team — quashed the Iran possibilities to do North Korea.
One hopes today that Chris Hill has not succeeded in securing a positive arrangement in North Korea in some sort of quid pro quo that State will acquiesce to Cheney’s desire for military action against Iran.
More later.
— Steve Clemons


17 comments on “Progress on North Korea: But at What Cost?

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Something good comes of $60/bbl oil


  2. Teemu says:

    From CNN:
    —- John Bolton [..] blasted the new deal Monday in an interview with CNN, saying it would only encourage other countries trying to secure nuclear weapons. “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: If you hold out long enough and wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,” said Bolton. —-
    I’m sorry if this has been repeated already, but given that Bolton attitude, could there have been (in 2003) or currently be any “deals” or “proposals” from Iran that Cheney wing would find acceptable? I can easily imagine them seeing anything less than a total, unconditional bend-over by Iran as a dangerous signal of US’s weakness.
    Many see current Iran situation as a nuke proliferation issue, others as unavoidable incoming war just for war’s (and war profit’s) sake. Would better interpretation be one of game of “chicken” between US Hummer vs Iranian golf cart? Sure, it would make some really nasty damage on bumper, but it would be SO much more convincing to scream “who’s next!?” after that. Ie. not the nuclear Iran, but everything that happens after this is over?
    So full speed ahead – either Iran chickens out or gets driven over, it’s a win either way if one is trying to build almighty empire that’s feared and complied by everyone?
    (This interpretation would also mean there’s a lot to worry now, if Cheney wing feels that US has to prove it’s determination to use force after bending to NK.)


  3. pen Name says:

    This deal was achieved because Hill was given more authority. It may or may not lead to North Korean de-nuclearization. This all about stablizing the situation.
    Clinton is the part to blame followed by Bush. Clinton dragged his feel giving NK the L.W. Reactor hoping that state would implode. Bush is to be blamed by making a deal in 2007 that he could have made in 2002.
    This has no bearing whatsoever on Iran.
    There was a deal that US could have made with Iran back in 2003 – that’s off the table.
    The President seems to like to follow a bad policy until he can get the worst deal that he could make – probably with Iran as well.


  4. fnpfo1 says:

    Section9 raises the key point. Perhaps this week’s agreement is an essential way station, now — in 2007, to “complete, verifiable disarmament,” but this Administration will end before that goal is achieved. Indeed, it will leave the situation worse than it found it…w/ NKorea with (potentially) more nuclear weapons than it had in 2001, certainly more plutonium, and continued ambiguity on the HEU program (that has had 6 years more to progress). It need not have been this way but for the peevishness of the naysayers in the first term.
    Also of concern over time, in places like Japan, national security analysts are expressing deep concern about an America they see turning away from historic policies vis a vis nuclear weapons, the NPT, and nonproliferation. They point to the US’s own nuclear plans, deals like the India nuclear agreement, and some officials’ assertion that NKorea’s nuclear program is not now a “strategic” concern for the US, but still mainly a “tactical” issue.
    Leaving a nuclear armed North Korea for some future negotiation will reinforce concerns allies, friends, and others have about America’s unsteady hand, and reliability. The risk is that it also will increase the interest other nations may have in nuclear weapons. Obviously, Iran will draw its obvious conclusions.
    In the end, this week’s agreement is a bitter medicine, better than no medicine, but hardly a cure for the nonproliferation concerns that grow ever larger. To deal with that will require a significant strategic rethink.


  5. John B. says:

    Why the fuck can’t this administration walk and chew gum at the same time?
    Does it really boil down to if we pay attention to the North Korea mess we made we can’t do anything about the huge fuck up in the Middle East? or visa versa?
    I mean these guys were calling themselves the adults, and the professionals, but all I see are are some pretty lame excuses for why things have turned out the way they have; to wit, a nuclear armed North Korea, a huge clusterfuck in Iraq, a looming disaster in Iran with a unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia thrown in to the mix and we haven’t even mentioned Palestine and Israel…


  6. Den Valdron says:

    Wow, Zathras, that was quite persuasive, if you ignore the history.
    Let me put it this way: If you had been a pedophile, that would be almost good enough to convince me to let you babysit my daughter.
    Then there’s section9… What can I say? I guess all it takes is a little good news to bring out the most crazy ass write wing theorizing.


  7. liz says:

    I take it the Bush team tore up Clinton’s arrangements, allowing NK to actually make nukes, and now we are back to the same place, only NK has nukes…..
    I do not see this as a win or good news at all. It’s status quo for the Bush Team.


  8. section9 says:

    Okay, my liberal friends. Let’s go over this again. What Powell and Condi saw that none of you apparently did was this: to get the Chia Pet to back down at all, you had to get the Chinese to get some skin in the game.
    To get the Chinese to get some skin in the game, you have to make them awfully skeered of a new strategic reality: Nihon Kaigun, a reborn Imperial Japanese Navy. China is going to have an awfully tough time dominating the Pacific if the U.S. and Japan are working as one. Mr. Ronery going off half-cocked has set off nationalist forces in Japan that have been building for twenty years.
    Powell saw this. Rice saw this, and made sure that the Japanese were held over China’s head. Unsaid is the fact that Japan, if it chooses to, can field a nuclear deterrent within several months, if not sooner. The Japanese saw the atomic fizzle and the MRBM tests as coming very close to the last straw for them.
    Oh yes, Americans forget that those missle tests worked; the ones that came close to Japan. Japanese don’t, however. That’s why their defense budget is going through the roof. That’s another reason why today, the IJN is considered by many to already be the second most powerful navy in the world
    (Gordon Brown’s budget cuts to pay for NHS have hollowed out the Royal Navy; they won’t even win the next Cod War against the Norwegians…).
    Instead of bilateralism, which was the Chinese way of keeping us occupied with their rambunctious client, we got them involved in crafting the agreement. Before, when Clinton and Albright had only their reputations at stake, the Chinese didn’t care when the Chia Pet burned us by moving his plutonium research underground.
    Now there’s face to lose all around, including that of President Hu and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Multilateralism works. I thought Democrats believed in multilateralism. Turns out you don’t, at least when a Republican is in the White House.
    Condi was smart to give Christopher Hill all the running room he needed to conclude the agreement. The key, however, was the multilateral architecture. You Democrats will never admit that the bilateral framework allowed Kim to divide and rule, but that’s what happened.
    Multilateralism will be applied to the Iranians, imho, and I suspect that it’s being felt already. The Persians were counting on a successful DPRK atomic program and the marriage of the Tae Po Dong and Shahab programs. Now, not so much perhaps.
    Finally, a shout out to Hank Paulson at Treasury, whose Counter-fraud program with the Macao banks put a huge kibosh on Kim’s ability to peddle illicit goods and drink Moet et Chandon. While his people starve.
    Remember that last line, my Democratic friends, next time you paint John Bolton as the Bad Guy. He was only telling the truth about Kim.


  9. Zathras says:

    There’s something about this whole Iran business I’d like to throw out, just for fun.
    American intelligence within Iraq has always had its limitations, but our people in the country have to have been aware that Iran started supplying, financing and perhaps supporting in other ways Shiite militias soon after Baghdad fell in 2003. It’s not unlikely that their discontent over the Iranian role got communicated to the governments of neighboring Arab states, producing the typical reaction, “that’s awful and outrageous, what are you going to do about it?” American signals late last year that something actually was on the verge of being done about it produced incipient panic among the Gulf Arab states, prompting President Bush’s announcement that a second carrier group and a Patriot missile unit — not enough force to attack Iran but enough to deter Iranian action — were being sent to the region.
    With respect to the now-famous “secret briefing,” we should consider the possibility that this was meant for Iraqi rather than American consumption. No political settlement in Iraq is possible without some reduction in Sunni Arab hostility toward Iraqi Shiites; blaming Iran for stirring up trouble acknowledges that reality while also appealing to the conceit some Iraqis still appear to hold that none of their countrymen could be responsible for the daily atrocities being committed against civilians. Outsiders are more likely to be blamed, and Iranians are outsiders, especially from the standpoint of Sunni Arabs. So the briefing blamed them, and if the evidence presented was not conclusive to an American audience an Iraqi audience having its prejudices confirmed might not be so skeptical.
    Finally there is the question of whether all the Iranian activity in Iraq is authorized by the Iranian government. We really don’t know this; for various reasons I’ve always considered it unlikely, and Gen. Pace today seemed to leave the door open for Tehran to reign in elements of the Iranian armed forces or intelligence services that may have been conducting their own foreign policies in Iraq — he acknowledged Iranians were involved but declined to say the Iranian government was.
    The fact is that while increased Iranian influence in Iraq is certainly a plausible Iranian interest, sectarian conflict of the kind now underway really isn’t. The most obvious reason for this is that large numbers of Iranian religious pilgrims visit Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala and are at great risk in the current environment. Moreover, to the extent Revolutionary Guards or other Iranian groups are freelancing in Iraq there are bound to be people in the Tehran government who see this as undesirable.
    What I’m suggesting is a scenario in which recent American rhetoric and actions toward Iran have, individually and cumulatively, rather benign explanations. Our people in Iraq want less Iranian encouragement to Shiite militia violence; they want to hold open the door for reconciliation (or at least a suspension of reciprocal massacres) between Iraqi Sunni Arabs and Shiites by encouraging the Sunnis to blame Iranians more (and therefore, hopefully, Iraqi Shiites less); they want to warn Iran that what some of its people have been doing could lead to real trouble, while leaving the government in Tehran room to pull these people back (which it may have reasons to do anyway); and finally they have taken steps to reassure allied Arab states that we will protect them if the Iranians react badly to the pressure we are putting on them.
    Am I confident this scenario reflects actual American policy? Of course not. How could one be, given the record of the last five years? We don’t know who is making policy right now, and some of the people who might be may well believe that the way to victory — whatever that means now — in Iraq is through Iran. I have no inside information on this point. I also don’t have much reason to think that the scenario I’ve sketched here reflects a strategy with much chance of working, at least with respect to sectarian strife within Iraq.
    However, it is the military that would have to fight a war with Iran, and the military leadership in the region now has got to know we aren’t ready for it — leaving aside what such a war could be expected to accomplish. It has got to know as well that an actual shooting war with Iran would make the situation in Iraq more rather than less dangerous for overextended American combat units. Maybe I’m wrong to think that the unwisdom of a war with Iran, and therefore of moves intended to prepare for it, must be so evident that the moves themselves probably have a different explanation. As I say, where the most senior levels of Bush’s administration are concerned the record gives little support for so sanguine a view. I just think the possibility should be considered.


  10. Stephen says:

    The 1994 Agreed Framework (find it here: called for North Korea to shut down its nuclear reactor in exchange for two light-water reactors and subsequent shipments of fuel oil. Barriers to trade and diplomatic relations would be reduced.
    It pretty much worked, especially between North and South Korea. South Korean tourists started visiting Mount Kumgang, a pretty important place in Korean national identity. Hyundai in particular started to invest in North Korea. Of course, Bush screwed all of that up when he took office.
    The current agreement only differs in that the US isn’t agreeing to build any nuclear reactors, and the donor nations are supposed to provide food and monetary aid in addition to fuel oil.
    Oh, and the fact that this is actually China’s victory – it’s their document agreed upon at talks that took place only because of their insistence with both us and the North Koreans. Despite their attempts at a positive spin on this, it’s a good sign of how much Bush has reduced our influence and reputation.


  11. JoMoHo says:

    This blog has become essential reading!! Steve, please don’t “sell out” and become some sublink on Slate or some other site. Everyone please make a donation!


  12. john o. says:

    So shrub dithered for 6 years while North Korea became a nuc-yoo-lar state only to circle back to the Clinton administration’s position?


  13. JM says:

    Well, bubba beat me to it, but I’d also like to know how the current deal differs from the ’94 Agreed Framework.


  14. J. Mark ENglish says:

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    If you want to do this just go to my blog and in one of the comments just write your blog name and the URL and I will add it to my site.


  15. dalivision says:

    Does this administration think that only by ignoring Iran and continue its non-negotiating stance will Iran acquiesce? This deal with North Korea just proves the point that you and others have long endorsed, we need to talk to all parties.
    Now Steve, who can we send to the Middle East? Ryan Crocker?


  16. uy says:

    > How does the current agreement/framework differ
    > from the agreement/framework the Clinton
    > administration negotiated with North Korea?
    A bunch of tested and ready North Korean nukes?
    See for yourself:
    I have not seen anything different, but with these things there are plenty of definitions under the table. I trust Bolton on this one: “This is the same thing that the State Department was prepared to do six years ago. If we going to cut this deal now, it�s amazing we didn�t cut it back then.”


  17. bubba says:

    How does the current agreement/framework differ from the agreement/framework the Clinton administration negotiated with North Korea? Thanks.


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