There is no alternative but to negotiate with North Korea

By Jonathan Power

The diplomats and pundits were right: transition after the death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea, they said, might well produce an unstable and frightening situation. Kim Jong-un, his son, is a cut off the old block.

But they forget too easily America’s stance in the negotiations that began during the presidency of Bill Clinton. It led to major progress and the unprecedented visit to Pyongyang by his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, which was meant to pave the way for Clinton’s own visit which was likely to lead to major changes in the relationship. (The demands of the Camp David Israel-Palestine-US negotiations in the last days of his administration meant it couldn’t be fitted in.)

After seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush – met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones – the Bush Administration’s negotiations ended up achieving almost the same as Clinton’s, albeit with no plan to take the final, big step, as Clinton had planned.

Well, not quite back to where the Clinton Administration had to leave off. On Bush’s watch Pyongyang tested its nuclear bomb.
This must count as one of President George W. Bush’s worst foreign policy feats. Commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honoured. (And the Republican majority in Congress in Clinton’s time also torpedoed commitments.)

Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was made a fool of. After he declared that the new Administration would try and complete the work of its predecessor, Powell was publicly repudiated. The insider work of Vice-President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld pulled the rug from beneath him.

Fortunately, the negotiations were salvaged by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who took personal charge of the negotiations and empowered a skilful negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the labyrinthine confusion and misunderstandings that were now heaped one on top of the other.

Pyongyang’s twists and turns and often appalling misbehaviour were more tolerated. In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a ‘light water’ reactor that would help satisfy the North’s domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. (The reactor sits half finished.) In return the North agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection.
Perhaps inevitably both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006 it exploded an underground nuclear device. Yet Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the hostile rhetoric.
The Rice/Hill push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. It also said it would allow back UN inspectors.

But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled. Washington capitulated on the terrorism list. A deal was made, with the added bonus of the North agreeing to open up undeclared sites as well, but with the proviso that inspections were agreed to by ‘mutual consent’, leaving Pyongyang a card to play.

It played it – over the question of how the US could verify what North Korea had agreed to, in particular the questions the US had over the suspected building of a uranium enrichment plant which could be an alternative source of bomb-producing material to the plutonium facility it had agreed to renounce.

The negotiations came to a shuddering halt when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test. (Barack Obama had become president four months before.) Later it revealed that it had built a uranium enrichment plant, albeit at that time only enriching uranium to the low requirements of producing electricity not bombs.

Obama tried to pick up the pieces. In February last year in return for 240,000 tonnes of food aid the new North Korean regime agreed to allow UN inspectors to monitor its suspension of uranium enrichment. The North also agreed a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

The agreement did not last long. In April the North launched a rocket containing a satellite, arguing this was a scientific not a military endeavour. (It broke up in mid-air.) Obama, I think mistakenly, decided to cancel the agreement. The US was backed up by all the members of the UN Security Council.

In December the North launched a missile that could possibly reach the US (but not carrying a nuclear weapon). In February this year it carried out its third nuclear test. Now it says it is prepared to threaten a thermo-nuclear war.

The Obama administration is going to have its work cut out to resurrect serious negotiations. But the alternative of letting more time pass by is not an option.

© Jonathan Power 2013

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