The Post reports: “North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium-enrichment program, nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile launches in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States, the State Department said Wednesday. The agreement is the first sign of progress in years of stalled U.S. efforts to persuade one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian countries to abandon its nuclear program. It also marks North Korea’s first major move on the world stage since the death of its leader, Kim Jong Il, and the elevation of his son, Kim Jong Eun.” Count me as underwhelmed.
Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton tells me this afternoon that this is “deja vu all over again.” Indeed, we have been down this road before with the North Koreans in the Carter and Bush administrations: We give real aid, and they give phony, unverifiable concessions. Bolton observes that this “agreement” is more limited than past deals: “Even the U.S. statement says nuclear suspension is confined to Yongbyon. This is like looking at North Korea through a soda straw, while the DPRK does what it pleases elsewhere.”
Jamie Fly, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, is also concerned about the geographic limitations in the deal. “Our concerns about North Korea’s actions are much greater than one facility. By failing to address this fact, this agreement might even help solidify the regime’s grip on power and postpone the day when the people of North Korea — and the world will not have to deal with this odious regime,” he e-mails me.
Moreover, the two sides, Bolton points out, issued separate news releases, suggesting there is far less agreement than meets the eye. (Josh Rogin reports: “The United States and North Korea have each issued statements about the results of last week’s meetings in China, but the two sides seem to be reading from two different sheets of paper.”)
At a hearing today, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen signaled her skepticism: “ I have great concern about today’s North Korea announcement, which sounds a lot like the failed agreements of the past. While it is good that it mentions the uranium enrichment program whose existence North Korea had so long denied, we must recall that regime’s constant duplicity. We have bought this bridge several times before.” She continued, “One troubling new aspect is the discussion of nuclear issues and food aid in the same announcement, which blurs the separation of humanitarian aid from the nuclear negotiations, which has been maintained since 1995. The North Koreans will view this food as payment due for their return to the bargaining table, regardless of the transparency and monitoring we hope to secure in the future.”
The real impact here may be on Iran. Certainly, the mullahs would like to get some breathing room from economic sanctions and to stave off a U.S. or, more likely, Israeli attack. Bolton notes that “fake concessions and renewed negotiations are sure to work for them, too.” This surely convinces them that the United States will go for any fig leaf to disguise the West’s failure to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
The administration is less interested, one suspects, in verifiable agreements than in simply having paper deals (even if not co-signed by the other side). What President Obama craves is the appearance of calm, and the illusion of successful diplomacy. Unfortunately, an election strategy is not an effective foreign policy. Our adversaries use phony paper deals to advance their own interests. Our habitual unseriousness ultimately emboldens our foes and makes our allies very nervous.