Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The North Korea Deal And The Triumph (?) Of Realism

The US and North Korea have reached, for now at least, a deal concerning North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea has agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor, disarm any existing nuclear weapons, and submit its remaining nuclear facilities to international inspections. In exchange, the US and the international community will provide around $400 million in food, fuel, and development aid, and the US will begin normalizing relations with North Korea, including discussions to remove North Korea from the list of states involved with sponsoring terrorism and lifting trade and financial sanctions. There are, of course, concerns over the verifiability of the deal, as the Times notes, "North Korea has sidestepped previous agreements, and is thought to have many mountainside tunnels where it can hide projects."

The deal, as it stands, is a pretty good one. There were few other palatable options, and using military force was nearly inconceivable. The deal, if it holds, gets the US and the international community pretty much everything desired. The US is bolstered by the presence of the Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese, and Russians, all of whom were involved in the negotiations. Specifically:

The deal places new requirements on both North Korea and the United States within the 60-day period. Besides closing and sealing Yongbyon , North Korea will "discuss" with the other nations a list of all its nuclear programs, including plutonium extracted from used fuel rods. International inspectors are to verify the process.

The accord sets a 60-day deadline for North Korea to accomplish the first steps toward disarmament, and leaves until an undefined moment — and to another negotiation — the actual removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the fuel manufactured to produce them.

Under the agreement, the first part of the aid -- 50,000 tons of fuel oil, or an equivalent value of economic or humanitarian aid -- would be provided by South Korea, Russia, China and the United States; in the case of the United States , that would require congressional approval, which is likely to be difficult to get....

For disabling the reactor and declaring all nuclear programs, the North will eventually receive another 950,000 tons in aid. Further negotiations are to begin on March 19 in Beijing.

The ultimate goal is the complete denuclearization of North Korea, and the next round of talks is expected to begin to wade into the thicket of disputes over how to carry this out.

The steps outlined require the North to provide a complete list of its nuclear programs, including an inventory of its plutonium stockpile. It must also disable all nuclear facilities, including "graphite-moderated reactors and reprocessing facilities."

Politically, however, there are two main problems with this deal. First, as former UN Ambassador John Bolton noted, the deal "sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded,' in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil for doing only partially what needs to be done." As I've noted in a previous post, this is a perennial problem in international politics: states with interests in a particular outcome can be "blackmailed." The US and others want North Korea not to proliferate, so if North Korea can proliferate it can then bargain away its nuclear capability for rewards. Of course, this can work both ways -- perhaps Iran will look to this deal and see an opportunity to wheel and deal and get aid and assistance that it needs. On the other hand, maybe other problematic states will see proliferation as a useful and even necessary step towards international acceptance and payouts. Care must be taken so that the US and its allies not be painted as easy marks for nuclear blackmail. In this case, the length and history of the negotiations and the very nature of the bilateral relationship makes it easier for the US to claim that this is a unique deal and not a model for emulation (although if Iran eventually gets a similar deal, the claim becomes more difficult to sustain).

The other potential problem is more theoretical. The deal represents a clear triumph of a realist foreign policy that preferences raw national interest, defined narrowly, against more liberal considerations like human rights or values. Providing North Korea with food and fuel aid extends a lifeline to perhaps the worst regime the world has even known. There are no guarantees that the aid will improve the lives of North Korea's long-suffering people. As the Times report of the deal notes, the debate within the Bush Administration, and even before 2000, has been whether to deal with North Korea or to "squeeze" the country in hopes that it will collapse. That debate has been resolved now.

Should the US be making deals to prop up such a reprehensible regime? Many of those critical of the invasion of Iraq desired for a more realist foreign policy, noting that much of the case for invading Iraq came from neo-conservatives who saw the opportunity to topple a dictator, improve human rights, and introduce democracy into a part of the world that has known only authoritarian rule. Here's the result of that backlash: A deal that helps North Korea maintain its iron grip on its people and continue to starve them into submission and subservience.

Foreign policy must always be judged in the context of the situation: risk, alternatives, and potential outcomes must all be considered. Consistency is nearly impossible, as every situation, no matter how similar, is different from another, posing its own set of parameters and challenges. The US lacked any good options for dealing with North Korea. An invasion would likely wreak horrific damage on South Korea, and perhaps even Japan and China. Sanctions might have toppled the regime in the long run (although evidence of the efficacy of sanctions is very rare) but in the short run were merely further impoverishing the people of North Korea. Furthermore a nuclear North Korea threatened to undermine regional stability in a serious way, by encouraging both Japan and South Korea to consider proliferation themselves. In short, North Korea presents a sufficiently serious and imminent challenge to American and international security that it could only be dealt with under a "realist" framework.

I do not like the idea of the deal, but on balance it is probably the best outcome at the moment. However, in keeping with my earlier arguments about the need for multilateralism to be backed by force, if North Korea fails to keep to its obligations, the full weight and wrath of the international community must fall on North Korea. The US must make it clear to all involved parties, and especially Russia and China, that total isolation and complete economic sanctions must follow if North Korea obstructs the deal in any meaningful way and to be willing to threaten military action if necessary. The US was willing to go the multilateral route of a negotiated settlement, but the multilateral community must be willing to back the US if the settlement fails.


Alphast said...

I believe there is no deal. You can't really make a deal with people who have already said (in their own State controlled press) that the deal was not what was actually signed by the parties. Bush didn't get anything else than a piece of paper with the name of the North Korean negotiator on it... for what it is worth. A negotiator is a totally replaceable asset the Northern regime.

Seth Weinberger said...


You may be right, but you can't confuse public rhetoric with private diplomacy. States say things all the time that they don't mean and that shouldn't be taken seriously. What makes international politics so difficult is sorting out the true statements from the false ones. The deal is well-constructed as it requires movement in small increments, which yields numerous opportunities for verification and many options for backing out if NK does not stick to its word.

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