Commentary

Unmitigated Gall: North Korea’s “Bold Concession”

With much fanfare, North Korea has announced that it is willing to halt its nuclear program in order to revive the stalled six-nation talks. Pyongyang called its offer “one more bold concession” aimed at resolving the crisis. That description is accurate only if “bold” is a synonym for cynically brazen. The proposal contains no meaningful concession. All the North Korean regime is doing is putting old wine in new bottles.

Pyongyang proposes to freeze its program if the United States: 1) takes North Korea off its list of terrorist states; 2) supplies fuel oil and resumes construction on proliferation resistant light-water nuclear reactors to alleviate North Korea’s energy shortages; and 3) lifts all political, military and economic sanctions against North Korea.

Such a tradeoff would merely revive the 1994 Agreed Framework that Pyongyang has been violating. Indeed, Kim Jong Il’s regime wants to receive even more concessions than the United States offered in that agreement. Although Washington had promised to move toward lifting sanctions and creating a normal relationship with North Korea, those actions were contingent upon Pyongyang’s willingness to honor its commitments under the agreement as well as reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea has not honored its commitments. It violated the Agreed Framework (as well as its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the 1991 joint declaration with South Korea to keep the peninsula non-nuclear) by establishing a covert uranium enrichment program. Moreover, this was not a recent development. U.S. intelligence sources believe that the program may have started as early as1997. If the uranium enrichment program were not enough of a violation, Pyongyang then revived its plutonium processing operations at the Yongbyon reactor complex (which were explicitly frozen by the Agreed Framework) and withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Kim Jong Il’s government apparently expects the United States to forget all about the lies and violations and simply pretend that the Agreed Framework is still in effect — plus move ahead with lifting all sanctions. Moreover, the North Koreans are not promising to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, merely to freeze it again.

Incredibly, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other Bush administration officials profess to be “encouraged” by Pyongyang’s offer. They should be decidedly more skeptical.

Every reasonable person in the United States and East Asia hopes that the ongoing nuclear crisis can be ended by diplomacy. But any diplomatic solution needs to have certain characteristics to be worthwhile. As North Korea’s latest proposal suggests, the United States could probably get a rehash of the 1994 agreement for the asking — if the concessions to Pyongyang were sufficiently generous. But such an accord would not really resolve the crisis; it would merely pave the way for a new round of cheating a few years down the road.

It is not enough to get North Korea to promise to abide by the Agreed Framework and the Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea has demonstrated repeatedly that its word means nothing. This time, there must be intrusive “on demand” inspections of all known and suspected North Korean nuclear facilities. If North Korea truly abandons its nuclear weapons program and agrees to such inspections, the United States should take a number of conciliatory steps. Those would include resuming the fuel oil shipments and construction on the light water reactors, agreeing to North Korea’s earlier demand for a nonaggression pact (even though historically such agreements have rarely been worth the paper they’re written on), normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Pyongyang, concluding a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War, and gradually withdrawing all U.S. forces from South Korea.

That should be the substance of Washington’s counterproposal to North Korea’s latest initiative. The odds are not good, however, that North Korea will agree to a new accord that includes rigorous inspections — as opposed to a toothless, updated version of the Agreed Framework.

In any case, the United States should not succumb to Pyongyang’s latest phony blandishments. The old admonition applies: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs. He is the coauthor of Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (forthcoming, Palgrave/Macmillan).