March 12, 2012

FOR THREE years the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea could be summed up in the pithy phrase uttered by its first defense secretary, Robert M. Gates: “I don’t want to buy the same horse twice.” The point was the administration would not succumb to Pyongyang’s perpetual tactic of offering concessions on its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for bribes of fuel oil, food and other economic goodies — before cheating on its promises and finally withdrawing the concessions.

So why did the administration decide to repurchase the horse? On Feb. 29, the administration announced that North Korea had agreed to freeze missile tests and uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to return to the Yongbyon complex, where its plutonium production has been based. Meanwhile, the United States pledged to ship 240,000 metric tons of food to the perpetually hungry country. U.S. officials weakly insisted this was not a quid pro quo, while acknowledging that the regime sees it as precisely that.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was careful not to oversell the agreement, calling it “a modest first step in the right direction.” Officials said it would allow inspectors to get a first look at the uranium enrichment facility constructed at Yongbyon while letting the United States test whether the new regime of Kim Jong Eun is serious about a more far-reaching accord to give up nuclear weapons.

It’s difficult to find any students of North Korea who expect such seriousness. Instead they point to the big short-term gains the twenty-something Mr. Kim will reap. The first will come on the “Day of the Sun,” April 15, when the regime will celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung. The youngest Kim will be able to point to the tribute being paid by the U.S. imperialists and also deliver a little on a promise that this year will bring greater prosperity.

As part of the bargain, the Obama administration effectively ratified the next generation of one of the world’s worst tyrannies, declaring that it has “no hostile intention” toward North Korea. There will be no inspection or accounting of North Korea’s existing arsenal of weapons, and its uranium enrichment will likely continue at undeclared sites beyond Yongbyon. The deal could weaken the pro-American South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak, which has taken a tough line on aid to the North, ahead of crucial parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

Oh, and the trigger for Pyongyang to renege is already built in. The regime said it would maintain the limited moratorium “while productive dialogue continues,” and spelled out what it expects: “the lifting of sanctions . . . and provision of light water reactors.” If that’s not delivered — or if the United States insists on intrusive monitoring of the food aid — the nuclear inspectors will be booted back out.

So once again: Why buy this horse? The argument can be made that something, even a limited moratorium, is better than nothing. Maybe talks with North Korea will deter the new leader from misbehavior, such as more nuclear tests or military provocations of South Korea, if only for a while. But “stability” has been purchased not just at the price of 240,000 tons of food, but by sanctioning the continued oppression of 24 million people.