Promising Start with North Korea

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles, Korea

After an intense round of six-sided talks, negotiators are bringing home a deal on North Korea’s nuclear program. Of course the plan has flaws. It’s only the first step in stuffing North Korea’s nuclear genie back into the bottle and ending six decades of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang. It’s way too early for champagne or a photo op for the president on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

But the ink wasn’t even on the paper before critics took aim and started shooting holes through the agreement. Former UN ambassador John Bolton predictably urged the Bush administration not to sign the agreement because it rewards bad behavior.

It’s not just the hard right that has its guns drawn. On the other side of the aisle, key Democrats have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for allowing North Korea to go nuclear. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “North Korea’s program is much more dangerous to us now than it was in 2002, when President Bush rejected virtually the same deal he is now embracing.”

But it’s a big mistake to dismiss this diplomatic effort. First of all, the deal confirms some simple rules of diplomacy. Communication is critical. Without the direct bilateral discussions between U.S. and North Korean officials in Berlin to narrow differences, the six-party discussions would not have produced anything. Second, a compromise on sequencing that provides incentives during the course of denuclearization and not just at the end can lead to a breakthrough.

Finally, the North Koreans are willing to talk. Portrayed in the media as liars, cheats, and scoundrels, the North Koreans are not very different from everyone else: they bargain hard for a good deal. In this case, they get 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil for freezing their plutonium facilities.

But that’s only the appetizer. In a set of working groups established under the new agreement, negotiators will try to make progress on five extraordinarily knotty issues. The United States will be focusing on the talks around denuclearization and getting Pyongyang to admit to all of its nuclear programs. But North Korea, too, will be able to aim for what it wants most: normalization of relations with the United States and Japan, energy and economic assistance, and a peace mechanism for the region that could replace its perceived need for a nuclear deterrent.

It will be a tough fight in Washington. The faction in the administration that wants regime change in North Korea will push hard to scuttle the plan. And Congress will need to approve the energy outlays that the United States will contribute to the overall package for Pyongyang.

Persuading North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons won’t be easy. But just as difficult will be getting Washington to put its full weight behind this plan and take concrete steps toward improving economic and diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. For this to happen, the Democrats have to do exactly what the Republicans didn’t do in 1994: act truly bipartisan.

After all, it is tempting to argue that the Bush administration could have cut a very similar deal with North Korea before it tested a nuclear weapon. It’s hard not to point out that the current plan is a less airtight version of the 1994 Agreed Framework that the Bush administration so loved to hate.

But the Democrats need to resist this temptation. This isn’t the time for the party to project a harder line than the Bush administration in order to win votes or compensate for a dovish stance on Iraq.  In their disgust for Clinton, Congressional Republicans made full implementation of the 1994 agreement impossible. The Democrats shouldn’t let their animosity toward Bush lead them to undermine the current agreement.

The Dems need to practice gun control. If they try to shoot down this promising beginning, they will only shoot themselves in the foot.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 16, 2007

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