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HOME > TOPICS > Nuclear Abolition & The Next Arms Race      
Is the North Korea Deal Worth Celebrating?

In this online CFR debate, Henry D. Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, and Andrew J. Grotto, Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress, served as discussants.

Mar 15, 2007
AUTHOR: Council on Foreign Relations
Is the North Korea Deal Worth Celebrating (PDF) 129.44 KB

Is the North Korea Deal Worth Celebrating?

Henry D. Sokolsk
Andrew J. Grotto

Most Recent

Henry Sokolski
March 16, 2007

Establishing why we should be celebrating the February 13 deal that the United States cut with North Korea is a difficult business. Almost as soon as the agreement’s boosters try to sell the deal, they immediately concede that it “is not perfect” and that “there is a real chance that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.” And now, any criticisms that deal has upset our allies, emboldened China and North Korea, and shaken South Koreans to recommend that South Korea go nuclear are downplayed as being “exaggerated.”

What, then, is the big “plus” that should prompt thinking observers to rejoice (and defenders of the deal react to any criticism of it as being a “dismissal” of it)? For all its faults, the deal’s boosters insist, there was no way that the United States or its allies could have done any better. 

But is this true? The short answer is no. In fact, the United States, Japan, and South Korea could have stuck to the sanctions policies they all were implementing before the deal and that were finally causing North Korean officials real trouble. Had we kept the heat up, any number of good things could have been possible: Increased compliance with the UN sanctions provisions against Pyongyang passed last year after it detonated a nuclear weapon; allied success in securing an agreement would have included real disarmament provisions and North Korean cooperation to resolve its differences with Japan; and, finally, increased international recognition that the Kim’s rule in North Korea is fragile and should not be dealt with as an inevitability.  

That, of course, is no longer immediately possible: The February 13 Agreement is now a reality that cannot be dismissed. Rather than engage in defensive celebration of the deal, though, the United States and its allies would do well to focus on its clear shortcomings to avoid the worst of what it might otherwise impose. 

What damage has the deal already done? First, it has put us at awkward odds with our staunchest ally, Japan. Tokyo may have been forced to go along with deal (after being abandoned by the United States, which previously was its only defender regarding its concerns about North Korean kidnappings) but it is not happy. Coming on the heels of the U.S.–Indian nuclear deal, which the Japanese will not block but feel they also were not properly consulted on (and that they worry will increase the world’s acceptance of more nuclear states), the February 13 deal undermines our efforts to earn Japan’s trust. One thing is for sure, it will take a good deal of effort to regain Japan’s trust that we will not abandon them in the Six-Party Talks to be the isolated odd man out.

This is regrettable not only because Japan is now nuclear weapons-ready (with many tons of weapons usable plutonium already stockpiled), but because until February 13, U.S.–Japanese security ties had been steadily improving. They took a nose dive after the U.S. failed properly to warn Tokyo of the North Korean missile over flights of Japan in 1998. But the Bush Administration, working closely with Japan to isolate North Korea and offering Tokyo advanced missile and other defense technology, managed to turn this around. Now, with the deal we are at risk of undermining much of this hard-earned progress.

Second, rather than back South Korean political forces that were gaining in the run up to this year’s South Korean presidential elections—forces that wanted to tighten security ties with the United States and cooperate in isolating Pyongyang—the deal has validated the policies of their opponents. Even the current government, however, was cooperating in America’s effort to implement and back the U.N. sanctions resolution provisions that were passed after North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon last year.  Now, that has all been swept away. 

What’s even more disturbing is what the South Koreans make of the deal. Political opponents of the current government, worry that the United States now has yet another reason to let Seoul shift for itself. They are now publicly recommending that South Korea must now consider acquiring nuclear weapons.  As political posturing, it is unprecedented.

Finally, the deal has increased China’s control of the future of these talks by giving it the chairmanship of the working group concerned with the key issue of clarifying North Korea’s nuclear program and disabling it. With China in the chair, it’s unclear just how North Korea will ever be found in violation of the February 13 Agreement. As noted before, all North Korea must do to get even more of what it wants from the United States and others is to temporarily freeze its plutonium production (which it has done several times before) and merely begin to talk about what its nuclear program might consist of. 

If the United States wants North Korea to do more, it will almost certainly have to give more and the gatekeeper here, more than ever before, will be China—a country that is trying to intimidate the U.S. and Taiwan with the costal deployment of hundreds of new, advanced ballistic and anti shipping missiles targeted against Taiwan and U.S. naval forces, that sees the United States as a strategic “hegemon,” and that has consistently fought U.S. efforts to sanction both North Korea and Iran for their nuclear misbehavior. In short, it would be a mistake to see China’s interest in managing the North Korean crisis as proof it shares our security concerns. It will be, as it has been, another arena of critical diplomatic competition.

Of course, one could argue that to make an omelet, one must break some eggs. The problem with the February 13 agreement, though, is that all we have done is break the eggs, but have no frying pan or fire. The likely payoffs, so far, seem marginal while the costs are clear.

Certainly, anything of lasting good from this deal—a resolution of the Japanese abduction cases, real and lasting nuclear disarmament, or an end to North Korea’s illicit behavior both at home and abroad will require much more than these talks alone are likely to produce. In specific, they will require something none of the deal’s defenders have yet been willing to consider, much less discuss—under what terms might the United States ever push away from the negotiating table with North Korea and, if it did, what, if anything, would the United States be prepared to do in the way of sanctions to put North Korea in a worse position than it currently is in. 

Nor with the deal’s announcment, are we likely to address this question in any serious fashion until, that is, Pyongyang misbehaves even worse than it already has. This, perhaps more than any other reason, is why making the case for celebrating the deal is such a difficult and unenviable task.

Andrew J. Grotto
March 15, 2007

To some extent, Henry’s hand-wringing about the demerits of the February 13 agreement is understandable. The agreement is not perfect. There is a real chance that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons capability.

But it’s time for a reality check: could the United States and its allies have done any better than this? Of course, there is no way to definitively answer this counterfactual. But the fact that Japan (and South Korea and China and Russia and the United States and North Korea) have all agreed to the deal after more than three years of negotiations—punctuated by a nuclear bomb test—is a pretty good indication that all parties believe that this compromise is the best they could achieve.

Only Kim Jong-Il knows for sure whether he is sincere about rolling back his nuclear program, and the only way for the United States and its partners to know for sure is to test him. We will know more about North Korea’s intentions on April 14, the deadline for North Korea to verifiably shut down and seal its Yongbyon nuclear facility and present a list of all its nuclear programs to the other parties. To dismiss the deal just one month in, before even the April 14 data point on North Korea’s intentions, is premature.

Henry’s bill of particulars against the deal, however, merits closer scrutiny because if his claims are accurate, the long-term costs of the deal may eclipse the short-term benefits. Fortunately, Henry’s claims are exaggerated.

He asserts that the deal has “cost the U.S. good relations with its chief ally, Japan.” That is a very strong claim, and Henry does not provide any specific evidence of a precipitous collapse of the sixty-year old alliance. I do not claim to be a U.S.-Japan relations expert (although I have lived, studied, and worked in Japan), but Henry obviously exaggerates. After all, Japan agreed to the February 13 statement, despite the deal’s evident imperfections. Japan could have said no to the deal, but it seems to have concluded that the benefits outweigh the costs. Indeed, most experts believe that U.S.-Japanese relations are the strongest they have ever been, due to major diplomatic and security investments in the relationship by the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Henry points out that the deal could give South Korea “an even more independent trajectory toward North Korea than it previously had.” This may be true, but upon closer examination this criticism is really an indictment of U.S. policy since 2001. After all, South Korea’s policy towards North Korea has been more or less consistent for a decade; it is the United States that has taken an “independent trajectory.” It was the Bush administration in the spring 2001 that sought to break from the allied policies of the 1990s and press a harder line towards North Korea. It was President Bush who surprised and embarrassed visiting South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in March 2001 at a press conference when he expressed doubts about negotiating with North Korea over its missile program and South Korea’s Sunshine Policy. Given the dismal performance of the Bush administration’s North Korea policy (until perhaps now), one can hardly blame South Korea for wanting to take matters into their own hands.

The Kim Dae-jung op-ed that Henry references is indeed chilling. But a close examination of it reveals that it is less about the February 13th agreement and more about domestic South Korean politics. I am no expert in South Korean politics, but the article is quite evidently a partisan indictment of the embattled Roh administration—which supports the February 13 agreement—by a spokesman from the opposition party for allegedly failing to adjust to shifting regional and geopolitical realities, including China’s economic growth and ever-closer U.S.-Japan relations. The United States should pay close attention to this debate and reassure South Korea that it remains committed to its security, but this political squabble shouldn’t force the United States to reconsider the February 13 agreement.

Henry also claims that the February agreement will give “even more control over the six-party talks to China.” It is not clear to me what Henry means when he says China can “control” the process, especially given that the February 13 agreement creates several bilateral working groups that China will not participate in. Suffice it to say, I doubt that the fate of Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who the Communist Party brainwashed into submission in the classic 1962 film “Manchurian Candidate,” will befall Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks, and his counterparts in Japan and South Korea.

Also, it is not clear to me what Henry means by his vaguely conspiratorial claim that China’s “immediate strategic objectives are at sharp odds with our own.” Sure, China opposes policies that could bring down the Kim dynasty in North Korea and resents U.S. power and influence in East Asia. And there is always the Taiwan issue. But China also opposes North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by its very active role in the six-party talks. Countries with broadly divergent strategic interests can nevertheless cooperate on the basis of shared interests, as evidenced by U.S.-Soviet cooperation on a range of issues during the Cold War.

Henry goes on to question the value of even a temporary suspension of North Korea’s nuclear program when he asks “How valuable is it to block Pyongyang from further testing and making a bomb’s worth of a year of plutonium when it has already tested a nuclear weapon and by now has eight to ten weapons hidden away?” The answer is the difference between a nuclear fizzle and a reliable, perfected warhead capable of being mounted on a ballistic missile. This is pretty valuable in my book. We don’t know for sure how many actual weapons North Korea has hidden away; the best estimate is that North Korea has enough plutonium for possibly 6-8 weapons. What we do know for sure, however, is that North Korea’s nuclear test in October was not a full success. North Korea reportedly told the Chinese to expect the test bomb to produce an explosive yield of 4 kilotons; it produced less than a kiloton.

Sniping at the February 13 agreement is easy because it is not perfect, even if some of Henry’s criticisms are exaggerated. But if there’s a realistic alternative that all parties (or at least the United States and its allies) could agree to that would credibly address the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, I’m all ears.

Henry Sokolski
March 14, 2007

Any bargain the United States cuts that’s worth celebrating should at least have a clear prospect of profiting U.S. interests. That, however, is unlikely with the North Korean nuclear deal the United States has just struck. Washington has agreed to participate in a complex diplomatic process that has already cost the United States good relations with its chief ally, the Japanese; set South Korea on an even more independent trajectory toward North Korea than it previously had; and handed even more control over the Six-Party Talks to China, a country whose immediate strategic objectives are at sharp odds with our own.   

All of this might be worth the candle if it led to true North Korean nuclear disarmament and an end to illicit North Korean misbehavior both at home and abroad. But that’s the rub: Only the most naïve believe that Pyongyang is serious about giving up its bombs and cooperating with nuclear inspectors as South Africa and Libya did. Instead, most experts concede that Pyongyang is likely to extort the U.S. and its allies as much as possible while keeping its weapons and bomb making capabilities as long as possible.

Unfortunately, the deal affords North Korea plenty of diplomatic slack to play this hand. For starters, unlike the 1994 Agreed Framework, the word “disarmament” does not appear in the February 13 agreement. Instead, the Chinese and North Koreans succeeded in getting the Untied States to accept the word “disable,” which roughly translates as “handicap” in Chinese. Also, unlike the Agreed Framework, there are not even any approximate deadlines for disarming. The only firm date is that by April 14, if North Korea wants to receive its promised fifty thousand tons of fuel oil, it must temporarily suspend its known production of plutonium (whether or not Pyongyang might miss the deadline and still get the fuel oil later is yet to be determined).

Some, of course, argue that securing the suspension is worth the costs already run even if Pyongyang keeps its bombs. At least Pyongyang won’t test another or make more at the frozen facilities, they argue. Besides the bomb making activities Pyongyang might yet be hiding (that would be nearly impossible to find), though, this view begs the question: How valuable is it to block Pyongyang from further testing and making a bomb’s worth a year of plutonium when it already has tested a nuclear weapon and by now has eight to ten weapons hidden away?     

It certainly is not more valuable than keeping Seoul or Japan from going nuclear. A prominent South conservative columnist, Kim Dae-joong, yesterday wrote in Chosun Ilbo* that Bush’s push and praise for the deal proves he “is no longer a politician of principles” and “has virtually given in to North Korean nuclear weapons.” He worries that the U.S. is giving China the key role as “go-between” in the Six-Party talks at the very time China is “longing for the good old days when it had the run of Asia .” Worse, he argues, the U.S. may leave South Korea “because the Roh Moo-hyun government looked on as North Korea pursued a nuclear development program and encouraged the U.S. to leave.”  Finally, he notes, “The stark reality is that Japan, with a nuclear reprocessing plant, is capable of making nuclear arms any time it needs to.” His recommendation: That the South Korean government “reconsider” its position on acquiring nuclear weapons “if we cannot expect the support of the nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. ”  

This is pretty chilling stuff. Certainly, if any of what he is arguing is correct (and some of it surely is), it’s pretty clear that the last thing we should do with regard to the deal is any further self-congratulation.

* This passage was corrected by the author.  In original submission he mistakenly referenced  Kim Dae Jung, former president of South Korea as the Chosun Ilbo author.

Andrew J. Grotto
March 13, 2007

IAEA Secretary General Mohammad ElBaradei said today that dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program would be a “complex process.” ElBaradei’s understatement is also an apt description of efforts by the United States and its main allies in the region to forge complementary policies towards North Korea.

Dealing with North Korea has always been a messy affair for the United States, Japan, and South Korea. This is understandable, as each country has its own unique, complex relationship with the country. But there has always been a basic underlying consensus among the United States and its allies on one overarching goal: a stable, secure Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. This is no less true today than it was from 1993-2002, when the United States worked with Japan and South Korea (and others) to craft and implement the 1994 Agreed Framework. The main challenge for the United States is how to most effectively manage these relationships to bring maximum pressure to bear on North Korea.

The negotiating framework laid out in the February 13 agreement has the support of all six parties in the Six-Party Talks—including Japan. The framework sensibly focuses immediate attention on the most dangerous issue, North Korea’s nuclear program. It requires North Korea to verifiably freeze the Yongbyon facility and “discuss” outstanding issues relating to its nuclear program, including its stockpile of plutonium. North Korea must take these steps by April 14. If it does, it will receive fifty thousand tons of heavy fuel oil. If North Korea misses the deadline, it gets nothing.

The negotiating framework splices the complex, sometimes divergent relationships and issues that color the six party talks into more manageable pieces. It calls for the establishment of five working groups to tackle these pieces. This approach has merit because it reduces the risk that a lack of immediate progress on any single issue holds progress on other issues hostage.

Consider the inaugural meeting last week in Hanoi of the North Korea-Japan working group on normalization of relations. Japan has said that it will not help finance any deal until North Korea resolves to its satisfaction outstanding concerns about North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea, for its part, claims that it has come clean. North Korea also accuses Japan of not appropriately atoning for its 1910 to 45 occupation of Korea. That meeting ended abruptly because the two sides could not agree.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone—it was the parties’ first bilateral meeting in more than a year, on an intensely sensitive set of issues to boot! The United States should and does support Japan’s effort to get North Korea to come clean about abductions. But Japan’s legitimate dispute with North Korea should not block immediate progress towards broader regional security. Japan apparently agrees with this, or it would not have supported the February 13 agreement.

Japan’s dispute with North Korea over abductions is only the tip of the iceberg. The range of issues that negotiators must grapple with is daunting, from the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula to normalization of relations and all of the complex bilateral and regional issues this raises. At best, it will take time and political capital to work these issues out; at worst, they may never get worked out.

The train has barely left the station. To dismiss the framework on the basis of some early disagreements is premature—particularly when the alternative is an ever-growing North Korean stockpile of plutonium.

Henry Sokolski
March 12, 2007

No one, other than perhaps Kim Jong Il, could object to Pyongyang permanently freezing its plutonium production; getting rid of its nuclear weapons and bomb making capabilities; resolving the Japanese abduction cases; and transforming itself into a well-behaved, normal state.

What’s less clear, however, is whether we will ever achieve these objectives. Meanwhile, the price we have paid merely to get Pyongyang to discuss them has been very high. In the near-term we’ve angered our staunchest Asian ally, Japan, and handed over control of these talks’ future to a strategic competitor, the Chinese. None of this is likely to increase respect for the United States.

Certainly, this deal has kicked the Japanese in the political shins. Japanese Prime Minister Abe just won a successful election campaign platform of pressuring Pyongyang to resolve the Japanese abduction cases and tightening security ties with the U.S.  Without prior consultation, though, Washington agreed with Beijing to subordinate the Japanese abduction issue and instead promised Pyongyang immediate energy aid and relief from U.S.-imposed banking restrictions for a temporary freeze on its plutonium production. 

Japan, angered, publicly refused to pay its share of energy assistance to Pyongyang until and unless Pyongyang comes clean on the Japanese kidnap cases. Meanwhile, Pyongyang made it clear last week in talks with the Japanese that it had absolutely no interest in discussing the issue.  Far from encouraging Japan to trust and rely more on the United States, then, our rush to announce this deal has so far only aggravated Tokyo. 

As for Seoul, the deal has produced a different kind of headache: Despite the jolt North Korea’s nuclear test gave South Koreans last October, South Korean officials have seized upon the February 13th agreement as an authorization to cut even more deals with Pyongyang. This is lamentable.  Earlier this year, it seemed likely that opposition parties skeptical of the current government’s generous approach to Pyongyang and eager to improve ties with Washington would win the presidential elections scheduled for this fall. Now, all of this is in doubt. 

It is easy to understand why. First, South Korea’s Unification Minister announced that the government had approved new fertilizer and rice shipments to North Korea and that these could resume even before Pyongyang freezes its plutonium production.  Then, former South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hae-Chan and key Uri party leaders announced they were headed north to meet with top DPRK officials.  It’s likely they will try to secure a North-South summit before the December elections, which will only strengthen the current South Korean government’s play for reelection. 

All of this has put the U.S. in an awkward spot. Trying to square the difference between South Korea’s exuberance and Japan’s displeasure over the deal, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill met with the North Koreans last week to discuss normalizing relations and removing Pyongyang from the U.S. state terrorist list (something Japan fiercely opposes until the abduction cases are cleared up). Hill tried to sound upbeat but warned that normalization could only take place after Pyongyang had actually dismantled its entire nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang replied by demanding that the U.S. drop its sanctions against North Korea as a precondition for it stopping its production of plutonium.  

All of this suggests that we have put a slow-moving train wreck into motion.  Certainly this much is clear: The United States, Japan, and South Korea are even more at odds in their approach to North Korea than they were before February 13th. This is sure to be exploited by China, which has been given the chief responsibility for working the details of negotiating the North Korean plutonium freeze, the clarification of North Korea’s nuclear program, and what should be done to disarm it.

Meanwhile, all North Korea must do to receive benefits from the U.S., the European Union, and Russia is suspend its plutonium production—something it has done before and may, for the right price, be willing to repeat several more times again. Beyond this, by April 13, Pyongyang only has to “begin to discuss” what its nuclear program consists of.  Not surprisingly, those that have examined the deal’s details, including several key architects of the 1994 Agreed Framework, have concluded that North Korea is unlikely ever to give up its nuclear weapons. 

It is this point, and the high likelihood that it is correct, that should cause pause.  Indeed, it and the immediate costs that the deal has already imposed more than suggest that we paid too much for too little.

Andrew J. Grotto
March 11, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deserves credit for achieving a major nonproliferation victory on the Korean peninsula. Trading heavy fuel oil for North Korea's plutonium production program, which Pyongyang used to produce the material for the bomb it tested in October, is like swapping a journeyman fullback for a star quarterback.

After all, it is easy for the United States and its partners in the negotiations to get their hands on fuel oil. Freezing North Korea's budding nuclear weapons program, however, is an altogether different opportunity.

Nevertheless, the deal is merely the first step in what promises to be a series of difficult negotiations toward achieving a grand bargain with North Korea. Success in this endeavor will depend on Pyongyang's sincerity about nuclear disarmament, which is by no means certain. But success will also require that pragmatists within the Bush Administration prevail over ideologues who opposed negotiations with North Korea for six fruitless years.

Ideologues wasted no time attacking the deal. Former UN Ambassador John Bolton trashed the very idea of negotiations. Deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams objected to removing North Korea from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. These barbs highlight policy divisions that continue to dog the Bush administration and its supporters across Washington.

Ideologues think the best way to deal with nuclear proliferation is to overthrow regimes or squeeze them into collapse. Pragmatists believe this approach is unrealistic at best, and backfires at worst. The ideologues believe negotiating with countries like North Korea rewards bad behavior and encourages further proliferation.

This faction apparently won most of the internal policy debates in Bush’s first term, as the United States either rejected negotiations outright or imposed unrealistic preconditions for U.S. participation. Until this latest deal, Washington had insisted that North Korea freeze its plutonium program as a precondition to receiving any incentives and negotiating on such matters as broader U.S.-North Korea relations.

That strategy failed. Proliferation problems worsened nearly across the board. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and tested a nuclear bomb. Iran has proceeded with its uranium enrichment program. And global confidence in the nuclear nonproliferation regime is waning.

Pragmatists, by contrast, appear to view negotiation more practically. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, "You can't negotiate when you tell the other side, 'Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start.'" This means offering both incentives and disincentives for renouncing nuclear weapons.

He’s right. Countries must be backed into a corner, but they must also be offered an attractive way out. Only then can Washington so dramatically alter a country’s cost-benefit calculus that it concludes nuclear arms are not worth it.

That's what happened with Libya. More than a decade of sanctions and isolation had the Qaddafi regime backed into a corner. Qaddafi wanted out, but not at the expense of his regime’s survival. So we offered Qaddafi an attractive way out—a grand bargain in which Libya verifiably renounces nuclear weapons and terrorism in exchange for normalized relations with the United States and Europe. And Qaddafi got to keep his job.

The North Korean deal—which would closely resemble the grand bargain struck with Libya—appears to put Secretary Rice in the pragmatic camp. President Bush supports the deal for now, but contentious and possibly drawn out negotiations with Pyongyang over the core issue—the verifiable dismantlement of North Korea's entire weapons program—lie ahead. We can expect North Korea to equivocate, drag its feet, and raise its demands. Over time, this aggravating conduct might stoke well-founded doubts that it will ever renounce nuclear weapons. The inevitable bumps along the way will undoubtedly present ideologues with plenty of opportunities to press their case that negotiation is futile.

They may be right. But pragmatism means that the United States should at least try to negotiate, knowing that the alternative is a growing North Korean stockpile of plutonium.

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