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Why We Should Not Be 'Leaping' for Joy at the North Korea Deal

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The recently announced deal between Washington and Pyongyang, in which North Korea will suspend its nuclear activities and implement a moratorium on long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid, has been applauded by many North Korean observers, who see this as a hopeful sign of a genuine thaw in the Hermit Kingdom. However, the "Leap Day" deal is objectionable on for a variety of reasons.

We are surprised that such a deal has been reached so quickly, and question some its basic premises. Given North Korea's lengthy history of stringing out the negotiation process with West to deliver little or nothing in return, and given its history of reneging on previously agreed deals, we are skeptical that this deal will achieve what the Obama administration hopes it will.
Consider the timing of the deal. Optimists would say this is a sign that the 'new' regime in Pyongyang might be open to changing the tone of its bellicose relationship with the West.

However, young Mr. Kim was selected to inherit the mantle of the Kim dynasty by his father on the presumption and belief that he would continue the unfortunate example set by his father and grandfather not only vis-à-vis relations with the West and development of the country's nuclear program, but also with respect to the continued enslavement of its people.

We find it hard to believe that Mr. Kim has, in the space of a few months, had a genuine change of heart, and are mindful that he is in fact being influenced, if not controlled, by his 'minders,' who have certainly not changed their tune. The likelier result of the 'food for sanity' swap is that Pyongyang's elite will be the primary beneficiaries of the aid -- as has been the case in the past -- and will use the new 'understanding' with Washington to extract further concessions.

It is important to point out that short of a successful invasion of North Korea -- which would be very difficult to achieve, given the size of the country's million-man army, even if the U.S. had the political will, resources and cojones to do so -- there is no avenue to actually halt North Korean enrichment activities or prevent further medium or long-range missile tests. And there is no mechanism embedded in the new agreement to actually verify that Mr. Kim is abiding by his commitments. How on earth can this deal have been reached on the basis of 'trust' with what is arguably the worst regime in the world?

The Obama administration would have been well advised to use this once-in-a-generation transition in Pyongyang to change the terms of the debate between Pyongyang and Washington, rather than embrace the decades-old song sheet that is clearly out of tune and ineffective. As John Bolton noted in his recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

What we should have done is concentrate on finding ways to exploit the North's leadership transition in order to hasten Korean reunification. Unfortunately, last week's deal is visible proof that President Obama never seriously contemplated undertaking this arduous but vital effort, which is now a lost opportunity. Instead, we have strengthened the DPRK's confidence, sustained its nuclear-weapons and missile programs, and prolonged the agony of its people.

If the Obama administration considers this a template for dealing with Iran, we believe they will find themselves mistaken. North Korea and Iran have much in common in terms of how they have deftly played the negotiation card with a naïve and subsequently emasculated West. In both cases, the West has too patiently presumed that good faith negotiations with intransigent states will ultimately yield the desired result. Instead, of course, it has resulted in a strengthened set of playing cards for the most reprehensible leaders and governments on the planet.

What will likely happen in the short-term is that Pyongyang will give no overt sign that it is continuing with its enrichment program, and in the absence of any new long-range missile tests, Washington can say that Pyongyang has abided by the terms of the agreement. What will then follow is a new round of concessions by Washington -- presumably, again, without a proper means of verifying Mr. Kim's 'promises' -- the resumption of six-party talks, and perhaps (a few months or year later) an abrupt cessation of the talks and resumption of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang.

How can the Obama administration possibly believe that young Mr. Kim, who was handpicked by his father to inherit the Hermit Kingdom, who is the physical embodiment of his grandfather (they could have been twins at the same age) and wears a Mao suit (even his father did not do that), is really the negotiating partner they would like him to be? Mr. Kim and his minders must be dancing for joy at the ease with which they obtained the food aid they need to claim they are improving the lives of the starving North Korean people. Perhaps Mr. Kim is indeed a god.

We would be delighted to be proven wrong in due course -- but we don't think we will.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk (www.managingcountryrisk.com). John Lyman is Editor-in-Chief of the International Policy Digest.

Daniel can be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/countryriskmgmt.

John can be followed in Twitter at: http://twitter.com/intpolicydigest.