Tuesday, February 13, 2007

North Korea agrees to shut down reactor

Wow.

North Korea promised Tuesday to close down and seal its main nuclear reactor within 60 days in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil as a first step in abandoning all nuclear weapons and research programs.

North Korea also reaffirmed a commitment to disable the reactor in an undefined next phase of denuclearization and to discuss with the United States and other nations its plutonium fuel reserves and other nuclear programs that "would be abandoned" as part of the process. In return for taking those further steps, the accord said, North Korea would receive additional "economic, energy and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil."

A State Department outline of the deal is here.

After years of doing nothing, this represents actual progress in North Korea -- assuming North Korea actually follows through on its promise.

This is essentially a watered-down version of the deal the Clinton administration gave North Korea in the 1990s -- energy assistance in return for abandoning its nuclear program. But there's a key difference: the Clinton agreement included an agreement to build a couple of modern, proliferation-resistant light-water reactors in North Korea. This deal doesn't include that. So the North Koreans appear to be settling for less than they got before.

The reason for that appears to be twofold. First, they cheated on the earlier agreement, and there was no way we were going to resurrect it. Second and most importantly, their semi-failed detonation of a nuclear weapon last fall cost them much of the diplomatic protection that Russia and China had been giving them.

U.S. pressure on North Korea's various smuggling and weapons-sales schemes surely helped, too, by causing pain directly to the Great Leader's pocketbook.

But let's not be too hasty in breaking out the champagne. North Korea has 60 days before it has to shut down the reactor, and its promise to eventually dismantle it depends on later negotiations. The agreement also put off discussion of what to do about North Korea's existing nuclear stockpile. So there is plenty of room for backsliding.

Then there's the matter of verification. North Korea also said it would let U.N. inspectors return, but the effectiveness of that will depend on the conditions those two bodies negotiate.

Still, give credit where credit is due: after repudiating and harshly criticizing the Clinton approach and following it with five years of mostly empty saber-rattling, the administration finally decided to put results ahead of ideology and develop a workable -- and ironically Clintonian -- solution.

It also raises some questions about the administration's approach in the Middle East, where Bush has categorically ruled out talks with Iran or Syria. But how do we expect to achieve results if we refuse to talk to your adversaries? North Korea demonstrates that sometimes you have to talk to your enemies -- and that such talks can bear fruit. Perhaps this will lead the administration to re-examine it's actions elsewhere.

The deal could face some opposition at home, largely from conservatives who basically don't think we can ever reach a diplomatic solution with North Korea. Prime among them is John Bolton, demonstrating once again why his name and "diplomacy" never really belonged in the same sentence. He's right that the program doesn't address North Korea's uranium program. But he seems to think that that should be enough to destroy the deal. It's a classic case of letting the perfect get in the way of the pretty good. And never mind that Bolton's "no compromise" approach, though it may have felt good, went nowhere. The only good thing to be said about the confrontational approach is that it led North Korea to overreact and actually test a nuke -- a move that backfired on them. But that was luck, not a U.S. policy goal.

So such complaints are so much useless hand-wringing. How else do they suggest we address the problem? The only real alternative is sanctions and military strikes. The former are already in place; the latter have a limited chance of being effective, and are so provocative that they should be a tactic of last resort. This deal is worth a shot, and it doesn't take any options off of the table: we could always bomb them later if we must.

Now we cross our fingers and hope the untrustworthy Kim Jong-Il can be trusted....

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4 Comments:

Blogger Not Your Mama said...

, the administration finally decided to put results ahead of ideology and develop a workable -- and ironically Clintonian -- solution.

Um, the administration? Ok, so they did agree to it but much of the legwork was done by Bill Richardson. Yeah, that guy.

2/14/2007 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One big diffence. Actually two. Bush insisted on 6-ways talks; not bilateral. That means he did not let North Korea buffalo us into the issue being about us versus them. It's now about the other 6 nations against them. AND Bush brought China in---a very important step that wasn't present in Clinton and Carter's bogus deal.
JP5

2/14/2007 2:01 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Mama: With the administration's blessing. Maybe the White House didn't personally conduct the negotiations, but they deserve whatever credit/blame is due for this.

JP5: That's silly. The Clinton/Carter deal successfully iced the North Korean plutonium program for 8 years. Yes, North Korea cheated by starting a secret uranium program, but in every other respect the agreement worked. Bush can only hope his deal turns out so well.

2/14/2007 2:51 PM  
Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Sean: yes, I agree and do give them credit for finally doing a sensible thing. I admit I was amazed by it but I'm pleased.

2/15/2007 7:38 AM  

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