The Debate

Playing Politics on North Korea

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The Debate

Playing Politics on North Korea

Yesterday’s U.S. deal with North Korea has plenty of people talking. It would be better if some weren’t.

The big question following the announcement that the U.S. had reached a nuclear deal with North Korea, under which Pyongyang would suspend uranium enrichment in return for 240,000 tons of food aid, is whether it will stick to its pledges.

As Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted when I asked him his view on this very issue yesterday, the U.S. food aid is irreversible, while North Korea can at some point backpedal on its promises.

The Kim Jong-il regime had a history of extracting concessions only to later reveal through its actions that it wasn’t negotiating in good faith. Back in November 2010, just after a report emerged that the Yongbyon nuclear complex was much further advanced than most analysts had expected, I argued:

“Successive U.S. administrations have found themselves damned if they do talk to North Korea and damned if they don’t. But with no viable pre-emptive military option open, and with sanctions failing to bite the regime hard enough to dissuade it from its chosen path, we might very well find ourselves back on the well-trodden ‘make a deal, break a deal’ path of offering bribes for good behavior that never materializes.”

Are we back on that path now? Possibly. But there’s a reason that successive U.S. administrations, both Democrats and Republicans, have failed to resolve the North Korean conundrum – there just doesn’t seem to be a way to make the North Korean leadership give up one of the only things (nuclear arms) that give it any kind of international status. As Korea specialist Gordon L. Flake described it once to me, North Korea without nuclear weapons is, well, Bangladesh.

But it’s an indication of how polarized the political mood in the U.S. is these days when this reality can’t even be acknowledged.

In a panel discussion on Fox News, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that yesterday’s deal doesn’t advance anything. Now this point can be debated sensibly on both sides, although as Sarah K. Yun, Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues at the Korea Economic Institute, argues in a piece in The Diplomat today, the deal could be seen as a necessary tactical step requiring a strategic plan. Krauthammer, though, couldn’t help but put in a jab at the Obama administration, arguing that the deal is an “election year gimmick.”

It’s hard to see this view as anything but solid gold idiocy. I’m yet to meet a person in the United States who would for one moment consider voting for Obama based on a deal like this – or, frankly, for any deal on North Korea. The killing of Osama bin Laden might, just might, have swayed some voters who place national security as their prime concern. But with worries over jobs, rising gas prices and various “values” issues, North Korea just doesn’t appear on the average voters’ radar.

Political point scoring aside, Snyder had some other insights into the significance or otherwise of the deal. I asked him the significance of the suggestion of allowing IAEA inspectors to verify progress in North Korea meeting its obligations. He told me:

“The return of IAEA inspectors is the most significant gesture North Korea is making as evidence of its commitment to denuclearization as envisioned under the Six-Party Talks,” he told me. “However, it’s important to understand that inspectors will only have access to Yongbyon, and the progress of North Korea’s enriched uranium program suggests that there may be other facilities not subject to IAEA monitoring where North Korea could continue to pursue uranium enrichment.”

I also asked him whether this latest move was any indication that the Kim Jong-un regime might be easier to deal with than Kim Jong-il’s. On that, he said it’s too early to say.

“I believe that the agreement isn’t a good test of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, since most of it was negotiated in the Kim Jong-il era, and is probably being implemented as a ‘behest’ of Kim Jong-il rather than as an active decision by North Korea,” he told me.

Thankfully, non-hyperbolic commentary still exists.