Yielding To N. Korea Too Often

By Winston Lord and Leslie H. Gelb
Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Bush administration gives plausible reasons for a bad nuclear deal with North Korea.

The proposed deal would lift key U.S. legal sanctions against the North while Pyongyang shelves many of the commitments it made in a prior agreement.

The United States would stomach North Korea's latest evasions because, for all of its risks, the deal at hand offers some movement on the most immediate problem, reducing North Korea's plutonium capabilities, and it keeps the door open to diplomatic solutions to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons.

But these reasons are not enough. If the administration accepts North Korea's hedging and reneging once again, it will increase, not decrease, the likelihood of confrontation down the line.

Yes, sometimes Washington must hold its nose, make concessions and tolerate ambiguity. But not now. Not when it waters down compliance with a painfully reached prior agreement. If President Bush allows Pyongyang to brush away its pledges, he will reinforce its instinct for bluster and blackmail.

This latest tug of war began promisingly, with a joint statement agreed on in six-party talks in September 2005. In essence, it stipulated easing some American economic sanctions in return for Pyongyang's disabling its nuclear facilities and accounting for past activities.

The most recent U.S. statement of the North's primary obligations, made last Oct. 3, gave this update on Pyongyang's performance: North Korea was committed to "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs -- including clarification regarding the uranium issue -- by the end of the year." On plutonium, North Korea reportedly has stated levels at the low end of U.S. intelligence estimates. On uranium, Pyongyang has provided nothing. It merely "acknowledges" American assertions.

In diplomatic parlance, "acknowledge" rarely means "accept"; usually, it means "we hear what you say."

North Korea pledged to disable all its existing nuclear facilities. By most reports, progress did occur but is slowing. The Dec. 31 deadline for disabling the facilities at the Yongbyon plutonium plant was missed.

North Korea had committed "not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or know-how." The issue today is Pyongyang's evident role in a Syrian nuclear reactor that was bombed by Israel last September. Washington has until now correctly demanded a full explanation of this and other nuclear activities. Once again, Pyongyang has provided no information and merely proposes to "acknowledge" American assertions.

Despite these failures, the Bush administration seems ready to make a bilateral deal by which it would accept these "acknowledgments" and fulfill the U.S. commitments to cease applying the Trading With the Enemy Act and -- over the vociferous objections of our closest Asian ally, Japan -- remove North Korea from our list of state sponsors of terrorism. (While this would make Pyongyang eligible for economic benefits, the practical effects remain unclear.)

American officials rationalize this cave-in by asserting that the plutonium issue, which remains unresolved, is paramount. They count on correcting deficiencies on all issues in the next phase of negotiations and through verification. The latter, by the administration's own admission, will be extraordinarily difficult. Such an approach is slippery with any negotiating partner; with North Korea, it is perilous.

It is one thing to compromise in order to craft an agreement, keep difficult negotiations going and not let the best be the enemy of the good. It is another thing to let the other side breach compromises already reached.

President Bush's remarks at his meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last weekend suggest that he still may stiffen his stance. We hope so. Our fear, however, is that Bush, feeling the glow of a rare foreign policy accomplishment, may proceed to cement a legacy. He should consider the criticism he would heap upon his successor if he or she were to ink such a deal.

The two of us can hardly be counted as conservative die-hards opposing deals with Pyongyang. We believe that Washington and its allies are rightly committed to exploring even the remotest chance that Pyongyang might give up its nuclear weapons. While reaching for that larger goal, our negotiators can seek to cap North Korea's nuclear inventory and head off proliferation.

We oppose both abandoning the September 2005 agreement and allowing Pyongyang to eviscerate it. Better to let the talks continue than to make one-sided concessions. Better to sharpen North Korean compliance or -- failing that -- to string out our own.

Bush can sustain international unity by making clear that his goal is to hold Pyongyang to its 2005 commitments. This is the only way to preserve American credibility and bargaining leverage. It is also the only way to maintain political support in Washington for these difficult negotiations.

This is the legacy Bush should bequeath to his successor.

Winston Lord was ambassador to China under President Ronald Reagan and assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific under President Bill Clinton. Leslie H. Gelb was assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under President Jimmy Carter and is a board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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