North Korea Deal Reached

The six-way talks with North Korea have yielded a potential nuclear disarmament deal in which the North Koreans receive a massive influx of fuel oil in exchange for shutting down their nuclear program. The multilateral approach of including China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea has paid off, as the North Koreans couldn’t simply walk away in a huff as they could have in bilateral negotiations with the United States.

Not everyone is happy, however:

But already before its adoption, the deal drew strong criticism from John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who urged President Bush to reject it.

“I am very disturbed by this deal,” Bolton told CNN. “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,’ in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil for doing only partially what needs to be done.”

Bolton has a point — however, disarming the DPRK is a major foreign policy priority. So long as the North Koreans have nuclear leverage, they’re in a position of strength. If a few hundred million worth of fuel oil will get them to give up that leverage, it’s still a win for everyone involved. As much as it would preferable to see the Hermit Kingdom to become something less than the hellhole it is now, that simply isn’t realistic at this point. So long as the tyrannical Kim Jung Il regime is in power and capable of inflicting massive damage to South Korea, we’re constrained as to what we can do in the region.

This deal isn’t perfect, and it will require further negotiations on key sticking points such as the inspection regime that would verify its terms and the return of kidnapped Japanese citizens, but this deal is a crucial first step. The world showed determination towards the North Koreans, and it appears that they will give up their nuclear technologies. A denuclearized Korean peninsula is in the best interest of all parties, and if that is the result than a diplomatic victory will have been achieved.

UPDATE: James S. Robbins argues that everyone got played for suckers by the North Koreans:

The terms sound suspiciously like the Clinton-era Agreed Framework. The North Koreans wanted light-water nuclear reactors and shipments of heavy oil for heat and power generation. They agreed to move towards normalization of relations and settling outstanding issues. And they agreed to allow nuclear inspectors to make sure they were keeping to the terms of the deal. Same now as 13 years ago. Proponents of the current approach observe that the 1994 agreement only sought to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program, not dismantle it. Of course, back then North Korea did not have as much to dismantle.

It depends on what the specifics of the deal are — especially what “teeth” lie behind it if the North Koreans refuse to comply. Especially if the Chinese start moving troops towards the Yalu River, we’ll know that they’re serious about this deal. Does China feel that it’s in their interests to have a nuclear-armed and frequently irrational regime along their border when they’re trying to flex their global muscles? I rather doubt that they would, which would give them powerful incentives to make sure that this deal doesn’t follow the trajectory of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

It’s still possible that the North Koreans really are playing us for chumps — but what do they get in return? The most they can do is destroy themselves, and they know quite well that any threat of regime change is not realistic unless we want to see Seoul reduced to rubble. Nuclear weapons buy them only so much leverage, and the fact that their test didn’t do all that much to change the diplomatic situation made that clear. The North Koreans can only rattle the cage so far before they would end up risking some kind of retaliation. If a nuclear test won’t work, there’s little more they can do that wouldn’t end up seeing themselves at the risk of attack from the US, Japan, South Korea, China, or any combination of the above. Kim Jung Il is, above all, a believer in his own survival, and if he thinks it’s in his best interest to trade nukes for oil, then we’d be foolish to exacerbate this situation by failing to accommodate him.

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