“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” noted Karl Marx. Asked to describe the meaning of the Korean summit and the latest round of the six-party talks, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center and a former senior official in the George H. W. Bush administration, offered that famous quote. He added, “What’s beyond farce?” to express skepticism about the next act. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a farce is “a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect.”
A farce could also mean “a ludicrous empty show, a mockery.” For now, the former definition has more relevance than the latter. But the coming months will determine whether the recent summit and round of talks will escape the embarrassment of being cast as mockery.
In the six-party statement published on Oct. 4, North Korea has agreed to disable the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon by Dec. 31. The devil, however, in this agreement, is the lack of details about how the disablement will occur. An expert working group is assigned that challenging task. If this effort stalls, the next act could turn tragic.
The past year has certainly had its improbable plot twists, and Chairman Kim Jong-il readily provides an exaggerated character. The first twist came exactly a year ago on Oct. 9 when North Korea tested a nuclear device, which had more fizzle than a resounding boom.
Instead of riding high in the saddle as a head of a new nuclear-armed state, Kim found himself sinking lower in stature — even his bouffant hairdo seems deflated — as he soon faced a tough sanctions resolution from the United Nations Security Council.
Even China, North Korea’s trusted friend, expressed its rancor by closing ranks with the United States and other permanent members of the Security Council. Perhaps the most surprising plot twist was President George W. Bush’s decision to stay the course on diplomacy with North Korea.
Asked to comment on this shift, a Republican congressional staffer underscored to me the importance of giving lead U.S. negotiator Chris Hill more flexibility. The staffer expressed some optimism on the next act given the level of interaction between the two Koreas and the flexible approach adopted in the six-party talks.
He emphasized that any positive engagement with North Korea increases the level of understanding and decreases the prospects of intentional or unintentional war. Commenting on Republicans who are now in power, Sokolski observed that they are unwilling to criticize the commander-in-chief, President Bush, as the United States is moving into the 12 months before the next presidential election.
Democrats who are in power are holding back from criticizing the President and are waiting to see the details of the denuclearization agreement, according to Leonard Spector, a former senior non-proliferation official in the Clinton administration and now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
But conservatives and hawks who are out of power are aghast because the Bush deal with North Korea appears to them as bad as anything President Bill Clinton did. In particular, a former senior Bush administration official known for his hard-line views told me that he is skeptical of the agreement and said it is probably as meaningful as the other broken agreements that South Korea and the United States had with North Korea.
For the hawks, one of the recent tragedies was that the United States appears to have abandoned its tough policy on complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament. Notably, the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an Oct. 5 editorial that even some former Clinton administration officials “are calling it (the recent six-party agreement) too accommodating.”
In particular, Gary Samore, a former senior Clinton administration official and who is now director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post that he was puzzled by the “lack of a process to verify the declaration.” Perhaps the Bush administration has forgotten President Ronald Reagan’s adage of “trust, but verify.”
Commenting on the administration’s shift in policy, Andrew Grotto, a Democratic analyst at the Center for American Progress, drew a parallel between Bush and Reagan by recalling that Reagan started out labeling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” but then changed course and negotiated with the enemy.
Still, the major difference between Bush and Reagan’s approaches is that Bush has yet to seal the deal with a binding agreement. In many respects, though, Reagan had a much easier task than Bush has. Reagan only had to negotiate with one partner, Mikhail Gorbachev, who like Reagan embraced nuclear disarmament.
Bush has to juggle the competing demands of many partners and confronts a mercurial actor Kim Jong-il, who has yet to convince an American audience that he is serious about disarmament. While Bush will likely have to leave the stage before achieving disarmament, he has at least advanced the plot for the next administration.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.