War Stories

Our Move

The Bush administration needs to play—and win—North Korea’s game of nuclear chicken.

Negotiation time at last?
Negotiation time at last?

A private delegation of American experts sets out on a trip to North Korea tomorrow, and if it goes as planned—and if the Bush administration plays its aftermath shrewdly—the visit could mark a significant step toward negotiations to end Kim Jong-il’s nuclear-weapons program.

One item on the group’s agenda is a visit to the nuclear-reactor complex at Yongbyon. This is where the North Koreans, by their own avowal, have been reprocessing weapons-grade fuel for nearly a year. The North Koreans have not allowed any outsider on the site since December 2002, when they kicked out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who had been monitoring the facility according to terms of a 1995 accord with the United States.

Significant members of the delegation include Sig Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab, and Jack Pritchard, the former U.S. negotiator on North Korean matters (who resigned last August after realizing that the Bush administration wasn’t very interested in negotiations).

There has been much speculation over the meaning of this trip, which was first reported last Friday in USA Today, then elaborated on a bit in Saturday’s New York Times. It comes in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s capture in Iraq and of Muammar Qaddafi’s agreement to open Libya’s nuclear facilities to international inspections and controls. Some have wondered if Kim Jong-il, realizing he’s about to become the last remaining member of President Bush’s “axis of evil” club, has suddenly decided to appear a bit more cooperative, too.

Then again, the visit also comes on the eve of renewed negotiations among the United States and five other powers (China, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas) over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. Some U.S. officials have raised doubts about whether the North really is reprocessing to any serious degree, whether it might be having technical difficulties—in short, whether Kim Jong-il might be bluffing and therefore whether the other powers really need to bargain away much to get him to curtail his nuclear ambitions. In this light, Kim might be using this visit to demonstrate that his nuclear program is for real (a fact that Hecker, who would know reprocessing if he saw it, could verify) and that, therefore, Bush and the others must start bargaining seriously.

These two interpretations, while diametrically opposing in some respects, do contain a common nugget—they both suggest that the North Koreans are keenly interested in negotiations.

That said, how significant, really, is this particular delegation? On the one hand, it does appear to be a private delegation. It is headed by John W. Lewis, a professor emeritus of Asian studies at Stanford University and an authority on the history of China’s nuclear program. For several years now, Lewis has been leading private delegations to North Korea, and this is trip is, on one level, but the latest in a series. According to one of its participants, it was Lewis, not any North Korean official, who brought up the possibility of visiting the Yongbyon reactor. The North replied with a positively toned, but hardly definitive, “perhaps.” (Early press reports about the trip, calling it an “inspection” by “nuclear officials,” were overblown.)

However, private delegations sometimes hold a special status in the eyes of North Koreans, and this one seems very intriguing. It may be that the North Koreans view these private groups—especially when they involve former high-level Western officials—as de facto official emissaries that pretend to be “private” for face-saving purposes. (It may be difficult for North Koreans, brought up in a totalitarian system, to discern a genuine distinction between private and public—and perhaps impossible for them to conceive that an ex-official might travel to a hostile country for some truly independent purpose.)

The breakthrough in setting up bilateral talks with the Clinton administration came through a private 1993 trip to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter. (The official negotiations that followed resulted in the 1995 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea ceased its nuclear activities—and let IAEA inspectors monitor the Yongbyon reactor—in exchange for pledges of U.S. energy assistance. The agreement unraveled shortly after George W. Bush took office and halted the assistance; the deal broke down in October 2002, when North Korean officials admitted they’d resumed their weapons program. It is unclear which betrayal came first.)

The current crisis began 14 months ago as an almost identical replay of the ‘93-’94 crisis. (Like this one, it, too, saw the North Koreans—then led by Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il Sung—threaten to start up their reactors and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Last January, in what Kim’s foreign ministry advisers must have intended as a reprise of Carter’s visit to Pyongyang, North Korean diplomats flew to New Mexico for talks with that state’s governor, Bill Richardson, who had played a role in past U.S.-North Korean negotiations. The diplomats were playing a game; they thought, from prior experience, that the U.S. administration would recognize the moves and respond accordingly.

But, as it turned out, Bush either didn’t interpret the moves properly or, more likely, wasn’t interested in playing the game. He dismissed the very idea of negotiating over North Korea’s weapons as “appeasement” and “rewarding bad behavior.”

Something seemed afoot last July, when Republican Rep. Curt Weldon laid out a 10-point plan for coupling Western aid and North Korean disarmament. North Korean officials reacted positively. Weldon and a bipartisan group of legislators drew up plans for a visit to Pyongyang—but it was scuttled when the White House denied them the use of a U.S. military aircraft and urged Weldon to call the trip off.

All through 2003, the various factions within the Bush administration played their own game. Someone in the State Department would send out hopeful smoke signals about a negotiated solution; someone else, in the White House or a more hawkish sector of State, would douse the flames.

A year has been wasted in this muddle of bureaucratic brawls and misplaced Munich metaphors. In the process, even the more hawkish Bush officials have come to realize that there is no good military option for settling this crisis. (North Korea has too many artillery tubes, situated too close to the South Korean capital to make a pre-emptive strike—either on the reactor or on North Korea’s entire military apparatus—seem plausible; the risk of retaliation is too great.) Nor do economic sanctions hold much hope for galvanizing Kim Jong-il into disarmament. (He already runs the most isolated regime in the world and doesn’t care if his people starve; besides, China, which must be party to any solution, opposes any policy likely to drive hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees across its border.)

The delegation leaving tomorrow has no official status, but the North Koreans may choose to send a signal through its presence. Is it too much to ask that, this time, Bush finally acknowledge the signal and play the game?