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Forgetting about North Korea's bomb



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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February 9, 2010

Does anyone know where the U.S. is up to in its long, endless, negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up the bomb? Does anyone care? Does the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee? Does the United Nations? Do the European countries? Does most of Asia? Try and find one creative word that anyone has said since the election of President Barack Obama and you will have to Google the subject until your eyes are sore.

Yet there they all whipping up a storm over Iran which is a long way from being able to build a bomb, and which if it came into being could threaten no one. Israel might persuade itself that it was under the hammer but in fact Iran would have no means of miniaturizing a bomb so it could fit on a rocket. For that the technology is less easy to master than actually building a bomb. Ask the South Africans who in the days of apartheid built a bomb only to find it was unusable. Ditto for North Korea.

After eight years of erratic U.S. policies during the presidency of George W. Bush - met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones - the negotiations ended up almost where they started following the fruitful diplomacy of the Clinton Administration that transformed North Korea from total intransigence to a willing negotiating partner. Indeed, by some counts, this was the Clinton Administration's only substantial and productive foreign policy success. Well, not quite back to where the Clinton Administration had to leave off. North Korea now has tripled the amount of nuclear weapons' material in store. Worse, it exploded a nuclear bomb and probably has enough material for half a dozen more.

This must count as one of President George W. Bush's worst foreign policy feats. Commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honoured (and the Republican majority in Congress in Clinton's time also torpedoed commitments made by the Administration). Bush called the regime evil and then offered aid. It refused to negotiate over the financial issues at stake with the money laundering of the Banco Delta Asia- and then returned the money it had impounded.

Bush's first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was made a fool of. After he declared that the new administration would try and complete the work of its predecessor, Powell was in effect publicly repudiated. The insider work of Vice-President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled the rug from beneath him. Even at one time when Bush tried to take a more positive approach, officials working in committee at the inter-agency level managed to deflect it - such was the power of the senior bureaucracy, (a lesson in the powerlessness of the presidency that future presidents should take notice of).

Fortunately, the negotiations were salvaged by a very determined second term Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rica, who took personal charge of the negotiations and empowered a skillful principal negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the labyrinthine of confusion and misunderstandings that were now heaped one on top of the other.

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The force and frequency of U.S. negotiating offers were stepped up. Pyongyang's twists and turns and often appalling misbehavior were more tolerated. In September 2005, the U.S. formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a 'light water' reactor that would help satisfy the North's domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. (The reactor sits half finished.) In return the North agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection.

Perhaps inevitably, both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006 it exploded an underground nuclear device. Yet Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the rhetoric. The Administration continued with its more conventional diplomacy. The hard-liners in the Administration, including Cheney, were sidelined.

The Rice/Hill push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. It also said it would allow back both U.S. and UN inspectors. But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled.

The stalling on both sides has continued since. The Obama Administration has continued where Bush left off. By now we are all asleep. Anyone got any ideas on what to do next?

Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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