Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NK Talks: Fiasco, Business as Usual...or Both?

Re the fracas over Pyongyang demanding that they get their light water reactors first, there will be an understandable tendency to blame the North Koreans for screwing up the nuclear accord with another piece of last-minute brinksmanship intended to wring a final concession out of the talks.

Or, as the LA Times print edition of Sept. 20 puts it, "New Terms May Blow Up Nuclear Deal".

But consider this, from the New York Times, which did the best job of reporting the whole affair:

To break the impasse, Ms. Rice came up with a compromise during meetings on Saturday afternoon with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts. Each country, she suggested, would issue separate statements describing their understanding of the deal, with a specificity that is not in the agreement itself. The South Koreans and Japanese went along with the idea, though South Korea, one official said, complained that it would "sour the atmosphere." Russia and China issued vaguer statements that left unclear the sequence of events.

So the North Koreans, at Condi's suggestion, clarify their position on what they consider the "appropriate" time for them to get light water nuclear reactors, and get jumped on for being obstructionist jerks.

The NYT reported, in a phrase that may come back to haunt the Secretary of State, that Rice's involvement in the negotiations was characterized jokingly as "adult supervision".

The LA Times and Sonni Efron, usually reliable conduits for Condi Rice's version of events, somehow omitted this interesting nugget, which makes Condi look pretty clueless.

The actual negotiations were apparently a full-time fudge factory, according to the Washington Post:

China sought to bridge the gap, playing its leadership role as sponsor of the talks. Chinese diplomats proposed language according North Korea the right to a reactor for electricity production but implying that it could invoke that right only after dismantling its weapons program and rejoining the international nuclear inspection regime.

"Implying". As in "not stating". As in "I wonder what they actually said to the North Koreans?"

What is clear from the reporting is that the Chinese drove a hard bargain and insisted that the Bush administration, rocked on its heels by Katrina, Iraq, and Iran, had to accept that North Korea had the right to a civilian nuclear program or else face public blame for the collapse of the talks.

The Chinese, perhaps, overplayed their hand in an attempt to humiliate the U.S. into returning to the decade-old civilian nuclear reactor scheme and thereby admit that five years of fulmination, threats, and chest thumping rhetoric under Bush had done little more than return the Korean peninsula dialogue to the hated days of engagement, peace, economic carrots, and Bill Clinton-style diplomacy.

For its part, the United States might have been perfectly happy to see the agreement fall apart and not have to follow through on a concession that the upper levels of the Bush administration consider coerced and detestable.

Certainly there seems to be a disconnect between the wailing and gnashing of teeth reported today with the attitude that the Washington Post reported earlier, when the negotiating team was still trying to move things forward:

In an immediate demonstration of the difficulty ahead, the official North Korean news agency early today quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman as asserting that Pyongyang would not give up its weapons program until it received nuclear reactors from the United States. A State Department official shrugged off the statement, saying the focus would remain on the Beijing declaration.

For the U.S., focus quickly shifted to asserting that the appropriate time for light water reactors is after complete disarmament and verification.

Re verification, the Post reported:

The administration envisions what one senior official described yesterday as a "very intrusive verification regime that will go well beyond what is required" by the IAEA.

For those of us with short memories, it is perhaps instructive to recall the experience of another member of the Axis of Evil, Iraq.

In that case, the U.S.and the U.K. pushed through an onerous inspection regime whose apparent intent was to confront and destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime to the point that it would expel the inspectors and provide a casus belli.

Whatever the reason--appeasing Bush's conservative domestic base, an inability to accept any unpleasant lessons from Iraq, or simply a failure of perspective or imagination--the U.S. is unwilling to surrender the propaganda advantages and strategic posture that come from assailing North Korea as a pariah state and subjecting its sovereignty to coercive U.S. and/or international supervision.

No doubt Kim Jung-Il remembers that Saddam Hussein acceded to full-cavity search treatment, and in return was rewarded with a duplicitous U.N. dog-and-pony show courtesy of Colin Powell, and got invaded anyway for his pains.

With that kind of history, civilian nuclear reactors will probably be operating on Mars before the Bush administration concludes its inspection regime in North Korea to its satisfaction.

So one can understand, if not appreciate, North Korea's explicit insistence that the light-water reactor program begin now, as a sign of good faith.

Failing that, what North Korea is probably hoping for is to drag the discussions out for another four years until there is a change of U.S. administration and a repudiation of the Bush "failed state" intervention doctrine that creates existential peril for the Kim Jung-Il regime whenever it comes into contact with the United States.

For a U.S. administration under siege and bereft of the credibility and will to resolve the Korean situation through negotiation and concession, the opportunity to deflect blame for the continued impasse away from itself and onto Pyongyang may be the only positive outcome it can hope for.

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