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Off the mark in N. Korea

Jonathan Power (Power’s World) / 30 December 2011

The pundits and diplomats are right: transition after the death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea could well produce an unstable and frightening situation. Kim Jong-un, the son of the dear leader, is too young to dominate the military and chief advisors as his father and grandfather did. There will be power struggles. Anything can happen depending on who gets the upper hand. This nuclear weapon-armed power is worrying to behold.

But on everything else the comments of outsiders have been way off the mark. Do they forget so easily America’s stance in the long negotiations with the North — negotiations that began during the presidency of Bill Clinton, arguably his one foreign policy near success?

After seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush — met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones — the Bush administration’s negotiations ended up achieving almost the same as Clinton’s.

Well, not quite back to where the Clinton administration had to leave off. Since then North Korea has more than tripled the amount of nuclear weapons’ material in store. Worse, it has exploded two nuclear bombs 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’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 publicly repudiated. The insider work of vice-president Richard Cheney and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld pulled the rug from beneath him. Even at the one time when Bush tried to take a more positive approach, second-tier officials working in committee at the inter-agency level managed to deflect it - such is the power of the senior bureaucracy. Fortunately, the negotiations were salvaged by secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who took personal charge of the negotiations and empowered a skilful principal negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the labyrinthine confusion and misunderstandings that were now heaped one on top of the other. The force and frequency of US negotiating offers were stepped up. Pyongyang’s twists and turns and often appalling misbehaviour were more tolerated. In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalise relations.

The Rice/Hill push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. 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 US and UN inspectors. But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled.

Washington capitulated on the terrorism list. A deal was made, with the added bonus of the North agreeing to open up undeclared sites as well, but with the proviso that inspections were agreed to by ‘mutual consent’, leaving Pyongyang a card to play. It played it — over the question of how the US could verify what North Korea had agreed to, in particular the questions the US had over the suspected building of a uranium enrichment plant, which could be an alternative source of bomb-producing material to the plutonium facility it had agreed to renounce.

The negotiations came to a shuddering halt when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test. Later it revealed that it had indeed built a nuclear enrichment plant, albeit at that time only enriching uranium to the low requirements of producing electricity not bombs. However, despite the war talk, it said it agreed to allow the inspectors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the enrichment plant. The Obama administration is going to have its work cut out to resurrect serious negotiations. But the alternative of letting more time pass by is not an option.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator

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