Of the many things that will be written about North Korea this week, the least likely of these is, “Now there’s the kind of diplomacy we need more of.” Consider just the events of the last few days: the missile test itself, which may have hit closer to home than originally thought; the failure of the United Nations to enforce two of its violated resolutions; the broader failure of deterrence and counter-proliferation; and North Korea’s final repudiation of a February 2007 agreement in which it had agreed to verifiably dismantle all of its nuclear programs. North Korea now says that it will restart an dilapidated old 5-megawatt reactor that it took limited steps toward disabling in 2008. It will also boycott six-party disarmament talks again — this time for good, it says.
By themselves, these declarations shouldn’t alter the views of any careful observer much. North Korea had been reneging on its February 2007 promises since February 2007; it’s still holding South Korean POW’s in violation of the armistice that ended the Korean War; and it has probably broken every other international agreement it has made ever since. Kim Jong Il was clearly looking for a convenient reason to press the “reset” button on the commitments he made to President Bush and move on to his new demands of a new president. Despite his complete failure to keep any of his past disarmament commitments, he’ll insist on keeping all of President Bush’s concessions (on the terror sponsors’ list, bilateral and multilateral sanctions, aid, and fuel oil that the Obama Administration has just asked Congress to fund). If any excuse is needed, a mealy-mouthed, non-binding non-resolution by that impotent oxymoron known as the United Nations will do.
How you see this news depends on your perspective: If you only care about the existence of negotiations, take this news calmly. In due course, North Korea will let itself be dragged back to a new set of talks to demand a new set of concessions. On the other hand, if you actually believed in the negotiated disarmament of North Korea, the time has come for you to declare intellectual bankruptcy and sell your unpublished manuscripts for pulp value. A second successive U.S. initiative to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear disarmament of North Korea has come to naught, along with years of painstaking diplomacy to put our talks with North Korea into a multilateral forum and secure North Korean promises — for whatever they’re worth — to disarm. Disbelieve Democrats who claim to have done better. The best they can say is that Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework I was a partial and temporary success at containing the plutonium portion of North Korea’s nuclear program, even as North Korea cheated by pursuing a parallel, undeclared uranium enrichment program. Until very recently, some had still questioned North Korea’s guilt of this charge. The credibility of this argument took a steep drop in 2008, after North Korea handed over a set of aluminum samples and a batch of documents in an effort to prove its innocence of the uranium charge. Both tested positive for traces of highly enriched uranium. While questions remain about the scale of North Korea’s uranium program — questions that North Korea refuses to help us answer — its intent to cheat can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In any event, no agreement with North Korea endures longer than Kim Jong Il’s carefully calculated whims and our own willingness to tolerate his mendacity allow.
Even the partisan debate about North Korea has missed the point, as presidents of both parties have failed in very similar ways. Much of our public debate about North Korea has been consumed by shape-of-the-table arguments about the relative merits of bilateral and multilateral talks with psychopaths. Beneath this surface fog, both parties have regressed to a rigidly consistent mean when in power: tough talk that amounts to nothing in practice, lilliputian bondage by an unimaginative and gullible State Department, and the temptation to overlook North Korean cheating to bring the headlines about North Korea — as opposed to the underlying problem — back under control. Judging by the latest comments of President Obama’s Special Envoy to North Korea, this administration will take even less time to regress to the same mean. We will have more talks in some other form resulting in the exchange of irreversible U.S. concessions for North Korean promises that become due, if ever, at some endlessly vanishing horizon.
This is not just another setback. It is the manifest failure of the our foreign policy establishment’s failure to understand the character of the regime we are dealing with. It is the manifest error of that establishment’s shared faith that, with the right words and incentives, North Korea can be “managed.” That faith has proven so persistent in the face of North Korean cheating and belligerence that I’ve caught myself embracing Kim Jong Il’s provocations for the clarity I always hope they’ll eventually bring. These events shouldn’t just cause us to rethink the failure of twenty years of American diplomacy to contain the proliferation threat Kim Jong Il poses; they should also cause us to ask why we’re about to send America’s most conspicuously failed diplomat to handle what may be its most consequential diplomatic assignment.
As Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Christopher Hill became the eager architect and executor of President Bush’s North Korea policy for most of Bush’s second term. What I refer to as Agreed Framework II, signed in early 2007, was the cornerstone of that policy and Hill’s all-consuming focus. Hill is only the latest American diplomat to believe he could disarm Kim Jong Il, but Hill believed it in the way that John Hinckley believed he could win Jodie Foster’s love. In the process, Hill distinguished himself for his determined blindness to history and the pursuit of his own place in it with an unrestrained glibness that often crossed the line to dishonesty. ...
Read the whole thing here. I suspect that Kim Jong Il will play the Obama administration like a fiddle, even more so than he did the Clinton and Bush II administrations. The North Koreans will continue to suffer under this tyrant, and the world will be less safe, as Kim Jong Il advances his nuclear weapons delivery capabilities.