Outside Pressures Broke Korean Deadlock

NY Times
David E. Sanger

It is hard to imagine that either George W. Bush or Kim Jong-il would have agreed even a year ago to the kind of deal they have now approved. The pact, announced Tuesday, would stop, seal and ultimately disable North Korea’s nuclear facilities, as part of a grand bargain that the administration has previously shunned as overly generous to a repressive country — especially one that has not yet said when or if it will give up its nuclear arsenal.

But in the past few months, the world has changed for both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kim, two men who have made clear how deeply they detest each other. Both are beset by huge problems, and both needed some kind of breakthrough.

For Mr. Bush, bogged down in Iraq, his authority undercut by the November elections, any chance to show progress in peacefully disarming a country that detonated a nuclear test just four months ago could no longer be passed up. As one senior administration official said over the weekend, the prospect that Mr. Bush might leave Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea more dangerous places than he found them “can’t be very appealing.”

Still, the accord came under fast criticism from right and left that it was both too little and too late.

For years, Mr. Bush’s administration has been paralyzed by an ideological war, between those who wanted to bring down North Korea and those who thought it was worth one more try to lure the country out of isolation. In embracing this deal, Mr. Bush sided with those who have counseled engagement, notably his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and her chief negotiator, Christopher R. Hill. Mr. Bush took the leap in the hope that in a few months, he will be able to declare that North Korea can no longer produce fuel for new nuclear weapons, even if it has not yet turned over its old ones.

For Mr. Kim, the nuclear explosion — more of a fizzle — that he set off in the mountains not far from the Chinese border in October turned out to be a strategic mistake. The Chinese, who spent six decades protecting the Kim family dynasty, responded by cutting off his military aid, and helping Washington crack down on the banks that financed the Cognac-and-Mercedes lifestyle of the North Korean leadership.

“As a political statement, their test was a red flare for everyone,” said Robert Gallucci, who under President Clinton was the chief negotiator of the 1994 agreement with North Korea, which collapsed four years ago. “It gave President Bush and the Chinese some leverage.”

Mr. Gallucci and other nuclear experts agree that the hardest bargaining with world’s most reclusive, often paranoid, government remains ahead.

Over the next year, under the pact, the North must not only disable its nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities, it must lead inspectors to its weapons and a suspected second nuclear weapons program. And to get to the next phase of the agreement, the one that gives “disarmament” meaning, North Korea will have to be persuaded to give away the country’s crown jewels: the weapons that make the world pay attention to it.

But before the administration faces off against Mr. Kim in Pyongyang, it will have to confront the many critics of the deal here at home. As the White House took credit on Tuesday for what it called a “first step,” it found itself pilloried by conservatives who attacked the administration for folding in negotiations with a charter member of what Mr. Bush called the “axis of evil,” and for replicating key elements of Mr. Clinton’s agreement with North Korea.

At the same time, Mr. Bush’s advisers were being confronted by barbs from veterans of the Clinton administration, who argued that the same deal struck Tuesday had been within reach several years and a half-dozen weapons ago, had only Mr. Bush chosen to negotiate with the North rather than fixate on upending its government.

In fact, elements of the new decision closely resemble the Clinton deal, called the Agreed Framework. As it did in that accord, the North agrees to “freeze” its operations at Yongbyon, its main nuclear facility, and to allow inspections there. And like that agreement, the new one envisions the North’s ultimately giving up all of its nuclear material.

In two respects, however, the new accord is different: North Korea does not receive the incentives the West has offered — in this case, about a year’s supply of heavy fuel oil and other aid — until it “disables” its equipment at Yongbyon and declares where it has hidden its bombs, nuclear fuel and other nuclear facilities. And the deal is not only with Washington, but with Beijing, Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo.

“We’re building a set of relationships,” Ms. Rice argued Tuesday, saying that the deal would not have been possible if she and President Bush had not been able to swing the Chinese over to their side. Mr. Bush has told colleagues that he believes the turning point came in his own blunt conversations with President Hu Jintao of China, in which, the American president has said, he explained in stark terms that a nuclear North Korea was more China’s problem than America’s.

But the administration was clearly taken aback on Tuesday by the harshness of the critique from the right, led by its recently departed United Nations ambassador, John R. Bolton, who charged that the deal “undercuts the sanctions resolution” against the North that he pushed through the Security Council four months ago.

Democrats, in contrast, were caught between enjoying watching Mr. Bush change course and declaring that the agreement amounted to disarmament-lite. “It gives the illusion of moving more rapidly to disarmament, but it doesn’t really require anything to happen in the second phase,” said Joel Wit, who was the coordinator of the 1994 agreement.

The Bush administration is counting on the lure of future benefits to the North — fuel oil, the peace treaty ending the Korean War it has long craved, an end to other sanctions — to force Mr. Kim to disclose where his nuclear weapons and fuel are stored.

Mr. Bush’s big worry now is that Mr. Kim is playing the administration for time. Many experts think he is betting that by the time the first big deliveries of oil and aid are depleted, America will be distracted by a presidential election.

But Mr. Bush could also end up with a diplomatic triumph, one he needs desperately. To get there, he appears to have changed course. Asked in 2004 about North Korea, he said, “I don’t think you give timelines to dictators and tyrants.”

Now he appears to have concluded that sometimes the United States has to negotiate with dictators and odious rulers, because the other options — military force, sanctions or watching an unpredictable nation gain a nuclear arsenal — seem even worse.


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