Oct 5th, 2004, 01:42 PM
Why N. Korea Talks Matter So Much
By J. Peter Scoblic, J. Peter Scoblic is executive editor of the New Republic.
George W. Bush and John Kerry spent more than 10 minutes of their 90-minute debate last week discussing nuclear nonproliferation — chiefly what to do about North Korea. Moderator Jim Lehrer thought the contrast in the candidates' positions toward Pyongyang was important enough to clarify them himself: "I want to make sure … the people watching understand the differences between the two of you on this. You want to continue the multinational talks, correct?"
"Right," said Bush.
When Kerry said he would like to see bilateral talks, Bush said: "I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is."
Despite Lehrer's good intentions, to most viewers this exchange probably had all the import of a Tastes Great-Less Filling debate, with none of the clarity. But, in truth, the bilateral-versus-multilateral divide is extremely important and telling — and could make the difference between a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and a nuclear-ravaged American city.
U.S. relations with Pyongyang started to unravel two years ago when North Korea admitted having a secret program to enrich uranium, which, like plutonium, can be used to make an atom bomb. This violated a 1994 Clinton administration agreement that froze North Korea's known plutonium-producing facilities, including 8,000 used fuel rods from a reactor, and placed them under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the United States agreed to build two light-water reactors for North Korea and supply it with tons of heating oil in the interim.
Conservatives never liked this deal. To them, paying off a dictator smacked of appeasement. That North Korea then cheated only proved to them the fecklessness of negotiating with tyrants. And so, when North Korea admitted having the uranium program, sparking a new nuclear crisis, Bush's priority was to avoid doing anything Clinton-like.
Initially, this meant not meeting with the North Koreans at all. When he did agree to allow meetings, it was not to negotiate but to talk about how North Korea could meet its international commitments. And, when the two sides did talk, he refused to do so alone because that is what President Clinton had done. Hence, the multilateral talks, which also include Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.
A year and a half later, however, these talks have made little progress, and the situation has gone from bad to worse. In addition to the uranium program, North Korea has reprocessed the rods frozen by the Clinton agreement, providing Pyongyang with enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons. Worse, we don't know where the plutonium is. North Korea has a long history of exporting dangerous technology to dangerous people, and it's frighteningly plausible that it might sell the plutonium to a terrorist group.
To have allowed North Korea to reprocess the fuel rods is a policy failure of enormous proportions (remember, we invaded Iraq because we thought it might be able to do something like this years from now), yet the Bush administration cheerily claims that the mere existence of the multilateral talks demonstrates the success of its North Korea policy.
Bush maintains that only a multilateral agreement will prevent Kim Jong Il from cheating again, neglecting the fact that North Korea has turned its back on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which, with 187 signatories, is the granddaddy of multilateral agreements. And Bush claims that if we meet one on one with the North Koreans, the Chinese will drop out of the process, neglecting the fact that China — which wields enormous influence over Pyongyang — has wanted us to meet directly with North Korea since this crisis started.
Indeed, in his obsessive Clinton avoidance, the president seems to have confused means and ends. Whereas with regard to Iraq, Bush said during the debate that "we change tactics when we need to, but we never change our … strategic beliefs," his North Korea policy seems to be the opposite: Our tactics are inviolable, but our strategic beliefs — like the belief that it's a bad idea to let proliferating dictators get nuclear weapons — are malleable.
Would bilateral talks really make a difference? Well, the North Koreans have always wanted them, and that alone is likely to accelerate negotiation of a deal. The flexibility that bilateral talks can provide is invaluable. Not everything has to be decided by committee; individual negotiators can meet and bounce ideas off each other.
It's also important for the United States to be able to make its position clearly and directly to the North Koreans — without the involvement of the Chinese, who do not necessarily share our interests. Finally, the North Koreans are more likely to detail their uranium program (and thus the extent of their cheating) in front of one country than five.
Kerry's support of bilateral talks is laudable for all these reasons. But, beyond the tactical advantages, Kerry's willingness to sit down with the North Koreans suggests he's comfortable engaging them without fear that any deal he reaches would look like appeasement. He seems to understand that the key is to get North Korea's plutonium back under control and that, when it comes to stopping proliferation, there are no points for style.
As Dan Poneman, who helped negotiate the 1994 accord, told me, "If you want to solve a problem like this, you kind of gotta wrestle it to the ground." But you can't do that if, like Bush, you're afraid of getting dirty.