Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, February 12, 2003


The lessons of history. In a New York Times op-ed entitled "Escaping North Korea's Nuclear Trap," Nancy E. Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., relates the following history behind the North Korean nuclear crisis:

  • In the late '70s and early '80s, the Soviet Union offered to build North Korea four nuclear reactors in exchange for its joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea joined the treaty in 1985.

  • By 1989, the U.S. learned that North Korea was violating the treaty by secretly processing nuclear material. So the first President Bush negotiated a deal: in exchange for North Korea submitting to nuclear inspections, the U.S. would cancel joint military exercises with the South and remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.

  • In 1993, the U.S. learned that the North Koreans were violating the deal negotiated by Bush. So the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, in which we pledged to provide light-water reactors and fuel oil in exchange for a halt to their weapons production.

  • In 2002, the U.S. learned that the North Koreans haven't abided by this agreement either. Only a few years after signing the Agreed Framework, North Korea began a secret nuclear program and now has enough material for one or two nuclear weapons. It has now expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and is building up to five or six more bombs.

What to make of this series of events? Soderberg argues that they support further talks: "If he has learned from history," she writes, "Mr. Bush will negotiate directly with the North Koreans." However, someone less charitable than Soderberg might draw a different conclusion: that North Korea, having gone 0 for 3 on compliance thus far, has no intention of keeping any agreement when cheating will only bring additional concessions. Faced with this record of backsliding, one wonders how Soderberg can say with a straight face that "As President [George W.] Bush's predecessors learned, negotiation is the best option in each new North Korea crisis."

If negotiation is going to work, it has to be backed up by something more than paper. CSIS adviser Robert J. Einhorn, writing on the same page, recognizes this fact: "To be acceptable, a negotiated arrangement would have to provide reasonable assurances that we could detect North Korean cheating, and it would have to be structured so as to enable us to withhold critical benefits in the event of noncompliance." Moreover, he adds that "if North Korea has indeed already decided that it must become a nuclear power, then the talks will fail."

One can always hope for a diplomatic solution along these lines; Einhorn, for one, supports a new round of talks. I certainly hope he's right. But then one should also be ready for a second possibility, that diplomacy may not succeed unless it is accompanied by the threat of isolation, sanctions, or worse. The most important lesson that history has to teach us is that wishing doesn't always make it so.




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