Bad History Makes for Flawed Policy

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“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the United States,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted a day after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day speech last year. “It won’t happen.”

(Photo: KCNA)

Now the North Korean leader has made Trump’s pledge possible. He has stopped testing just short of demonstrating a reliable thermonuclear weapon and an ICBM with a reentry vehicle capable of delivering it. If President Trump is prepared to negotiate in earnest and live up to his commitments, he might make his wish come true—but not if he heeds advice to confront Kim at the summit with an ultimatum to disarm or else. John Bolton may offer that advice in the mistaken belief that brandishing sanctions and threatening war gives Trump leverage, but Kim retains far greater leverage by resuming tests.

Kim may also be willing to commit to denuclearize and even take some steps to disarm if Trump commits to end enmity and take reciprocal steps in that direction. An end to US enmity remains Kim Jong Un’s aim just as it was his grandfather’s and father’s for the past thirty years.

Throughout the Cold War, Kim Il Sung had played China off against the Soviet Union to maintain his freedom of maneuver. In 1988, anticipating the Soviet Union’s collapse, he reached out to improve relations with the United States, South Korea and Japan fundamentally in order to avoid overdependence on China. That has been the Kims’ aim ever since.

From Pyongyang’s vantage point, that aim was the basis of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which committed Washington to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,” or, in plain English, to end enmity. That was also the essence of the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement which bound Washington and Pyongyang to “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies” as well as to “negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

For Washington, the point of these agreements was the suspension of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. For nearly a decade, the Agreed Framework shuttered the North’s production of fissile material and stopped the test-launches of medium and longer-range missiles and did so again from 2007 to 2009. Both agreements collapsed, however, when Washington did little to implement its commitment to improve relations and Pyongyang reneged on denuclearization.

So-called experts ignore that history at their peril. Here is a typical view from the right:

In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration gave massive aid to North Korea under the “Agreed Framework” deal, including heavy fuel oil. In exchange, North Korea promised to cease its ongoing nuclear proliferation.

Predictably, North Korean leadership lied. It eagerly took the aid only to further fast-track its nuclear weapons program.

The George W. Bush administration in 2003 arranged for “six-party talks” — China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. — to discourage North Korean nuclear proliferation. America and its allies once more provided aid and promised not to attack the Kim Jong-il regime. In exchange, Pyongyang agreed in writing to dismantle “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

Once more, North Korea outsmarted Western naifs. It interpreted American concessions as weakness to be exploited rather than magnanimity to be reciprocated. In 2006, North Korea detonated a nuclear device.

That was Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution writing in The National Review on March 22.

That leads Hanson to offer this advice for Trump: “Ratchet up the embargo of North Korea. Do not give it any aid—no matter the pleas and threats. Put more pressure on China. Do not barter with Pyongyang until it is proven that it has no more nukes.”

Bad history promotes flawed policy.

The problem is hardly confined to the right. Here is Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relation writing for National Public Radio: North Korea “is known to have confounded US negotiators and persisted in its nuclear drive by hook or by crook, despite both its relative weakness and repeated American efforts to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear development.”

He faults the Bush administration for ignoring the enrichment program:

In six-nation talks a decade ago, the North Koreans skillfully forced the United States to make a choice between addressing the urgent question of plutonium pathways to making a bomb at the expense of including North Korean uranium enrichment efforts on the negotiating agenda. North Korea also limited negotiations and inspections to the site of its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon in an effort to restrict verification of all aspects of its nuclear program. Christopher Hill, lead U.S. negotiator in the Six-Party Talks, accepted limitations on the agenda as an expedient way to start North Korea’s denuclearization, but the process broke down before a broader verification of the country’s entire nuclear program could begin.

This is historical nonsense. An October 3, 2007 phase two agreement committed North Korea to provide “a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs.” Verification was to be left to phase three. Yet, when doubts arose about the veracity of that declaration, which put the total of plutonium produced at the low end of US estimates, negotiator Christopher Hill secured an oral agreement from North Korea to allow “sampling and other forensic measures” at the three declared sites at Yongbyon—the reactor, reprocessing plant, and fuel fabrication plant—which might suffice to ascertain how much plutonium it had produced. It was not yet enriching uranium, but he also obtained “access, based on mutual consent, to undeclared sites,” according to a State Department announcement on October 11, 2008. South Korea and Japan insisted that the agreement be put in writing and when the North balked on the grounds that it was a matter to be formally resolved in phase three, South Korea reneged by failing to deliver promised energy aid.

Ignoring Seoul’s action, Snyder concludes, “In this respect, the North’s decision to walk away from the ‘action for action’ formula underlying the Six-Party Talks deal of a decade ago—denuclearization in exchange for normalization and economic development—provided a severe blow to prospects for diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue.” That, of course, was not “the deal.”

For Snyder, the problem is presidential distraction, not a failure to keep the US side of the bargain and see whether the North Koreans kept their end:

The Clinton administration did not hold North Korea’s feet to the fire to implement the deal. One result of the Clinton administration’s failure to pay sufficient attention to implementing the agreement is that it provided space for North Koreans to cut corners and eventually pursue an alternative covert uranium enrichment path to securing materials for a bomb.

That conveniently overlooks the fact that the North put the enrichment program on the negotiating table in October 2002, but the Bush administration, led by hardliners like Bolton, chose to trash the 1994 Agreed Framework instead.

Snyder’s bottom line is that North Korea, not the United States, rejected action for action: “North Korea has pocketed past concessions to its demands while continuing on the same path, rather than offering quid pro quos.”

That is not what Kim Jong Un told South Korean envoys this month. In the words of their statement, “North Korea showed its resolve for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The North also made clear that there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons as long as military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.” They agreed to discuss “denuclearization issues,” which the South later disclosed could include dismantlement of production facilities.

Instead of basing the approach to the summit on a gross misreading of the past, President Trump would do better to test whether or not Kim means what he says now.

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