Is North Korea Renuking?

10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

When pundits talk about the U.S. elections and foreign policy, they focus on Iraq and Iran. But the third member of the infamous "axis of evil" may prove to be just as influential.

In the last several weeks, North Korea has stopped dismantling its nuclear facilities and has even threatened to rebuild what it has already destroyed. In exchange for providing an account of its nuclear programs - and 18,000 pages of documentation - Pyongyang expected to be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The Bush administration announced back in June that it would do so. But the actual removal has not taken place, pending Pyongyang's acceptance of an intrusive inspections regime.

The only palpable foreign policy success of the Bush administration thus hangs in the balance. Success, of course, is a relative term. In 2000, North Korea and the United States were on the verge of an historic détente. After the Florida elections debacle, Bill Clinton didn't have the political capital to seal the deal with a visit to Pyongyang. The new Bush team couldn't wait to reverse the Clinton policy. North Korea responded by unfreezing its plutonium program, reprocessing more nuclear material, and ultimately testing a nuclear weapon in 2006.

In his new book Meltdown, former CNN reporter Mike Chinoy describes in fascinating detail how the Bush administration transformed its North Korea policy. The 180-degree turn on negotiating one-on-one with Pyongyang and providing incentives along the road to denuclearization, Chinoy reports from behind the scenes, came about not just because of the failures in Iraq. Or the Republican defeat at the polls in 2006 and the subsequent resignations of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, UN ambassador John Bolton, the State Department's Robert Joseph, and other hardliners. Or Condoleezza Rice's desperate search for a positive foreign policy legacy.

The forces in support of engaging North Korea, coalescing behind new envoy Chris Hill, succeeded by fighting back with the hardliners' tactics. "Chris refused to play nice," Chinoy quotes one of Hill's colleagues. "He was extremely careful about not leaving a paper trail, since every time you called an interagency meeting, everybody would veto things. He just wasn't going to do it. He decided to cut people out."

To get an agreement with the North that could pass muster in Washington, Hill also finessed a couple major points. He focused on North Korea's plutonium program and merely Pyongyang's acknowledgment of two controversial issues: the highly enriched uranium program (HEU) and North Korea's possible connection to Syria's possible nuclear program. The U.S. side bargained that it would find out more about these two issues through the verification process.

But the actual verification process was never spelled out in detail. "The verification measures of the verification mechanism include visits to facilities, review of documents, interviews with technical personnel and other measures unanimously agreed upon among the six parties," the July 12, 2008 agreement reads. "The specific plans and implementation of the verification will be decided by the Working Group on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in line with the principle of consensus."

The U.S. side is pushing for unrestricted access to all suspected facilities at all times - in part to make up for the lack of inclusion of the two controversial questions in the original agreement. The hardliners cut out of the negotiation process by Hill are also using the verification issue to defeat an agreement they never liked. North Korea, which has always used opacity to compensate for its military weakness, is pushing back.

The way forward on this question seems simple. At a recent press conference in Beijing, Chris Hill said that North Korea simply has to agree to a verification protocol - because a declaration without a protocol is like a single chopstick. But here's an even easier solution. Washington should simply remove Pyongyang from the state sponsors of terrorism list. North Korea hasn't engaged in terrorist acts since the 1980s. It provided the information on its plutonium program and completed eight of 11 dismantlement steps. Its more recent reversal amounts to little more than a signal, and U.S. monitors remain in the country. Washington should follow through on the delisting and then proceed to negotiations over an appropriate inspections regime. If it turns out that North Korea's declaration doesn't hold up under inspection, then the United States always has the option of putting North Korea on the list again.

The Republicans stand the most to lose if the administration proves inflexible on this point. During the election campaign, the Democrats can hammer home the point that North Korea went nuclear during the Bush administration and Washington has yet to adequately address the issue.

Whoever wins in November, this stealth crisis might turn into a replay of 2000. Détente between Washington and its longest running enemy is on the table. If the next administration - whether presided over by a Republican hawk or a Democrat afraid of being labeled an appeaser - decides to take a hard line against North Korea, the crisis will no longer be stealth.

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North Korea