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In North Korea, Process Over Progress

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
February 1, 2008
Washington Post

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By my count, at least five former high-level Bush administration officials are deeply disillusioned with the current policy on North Korea.

This brewing discontent broke into open revolt two weeks ago when Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy on North Korean human rights, committed the gaffe of stating the obvious: North Korea is not serious about nuclear disarmament. The current six-party talks will do little to change that fact. And the price we are paying to pursue those talks is silence about the suffering of a brutalized, friendless people.

Afterward, even some of Lefkowitz’s supporters complained that he had ventured “out of his lane.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice slapped the special envoy down hard, noting to reporters that he “doesn’t know what’s going on in the six-party talks.” Lefkowitz’s speech was quickly scrubbed from the State Department’s Web site.

But Lefkowitz spoke after 2 1/2 years of frustration. The East Asia bureau at the State Department, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has consistently viewed the raising of human rights as an impediment to the serious work of negotiating with Kim Jong Il. The Korea desk tried and failed to exclude Lefkowitz from important policy meetings with the president. It attempted unsuccessfully to weaken the North Korea section in the State Department’s annual human rights report. Human rights groups generally view Hill with great suspicion.

Some State Department officials working in nonproliferation and intelligence reportedly share Lefkowitz’s dissatisfaction. But, as one former Bush official made clear to me, “Rice’s treatment of Jay shows that you need to stay quiet if you want to stay in government.”

Even critics of the current approach believe that the agreement reached last February was worth a try. After testing a nuclear weapon, North Korea was under serious international pressure. The U.N. Security Council passed a tough resolution that included economic sanctions. So North Korea promised to move away from its nuclear ambitions in stages, beginning with a freeze on work at its plutonium reactor and enrichment complex—though some experts suspected that the plant was already nearing the end of its useful life. In return, the North Koreans received pledges for 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

The problem has come in the months since. Having begun the path of negotiations, the State Department has consistently moved the goal posts closer to keep North Korea at the table. The second stage of compliance was supposed to be the permanent “disablement” of the plutonium complex, which is now interpreted as disablement that is irreversible for a year. Some experts believe it is actually reversible in a few months. To keep the process going, America has returned money that the North Koreans gained from money laundering, drug trafficking and proliferation.

And North Korea’s nuclear disclosure, due at the end of 2007, was not even close to adequate. Kim declared 30 kilograms of plutonium but did not even mention uranium enrichment, weapons components or proliferation to Syria. This is a far cry from Libya ’s full disclosure in 2004, in which that nation sent its most sensitive nuclear program materials to a facility in Tennessee.

North Korea feels little pressure as a result of its noncompliance. China seems relieved that Kim hasn’t recently misbehaved and urges patience. The South Korean government continues to hold up its end of a protection racket: To keep the peace, South Korea provides North Korea with aid, which is diverted to strengthen North Korea’s military, which threatens South Korea, which gives more aid to keep the peace.

This is the problem of State Department “realism.” Negotiations that begin as a means become the end itself—a kind of blind and dreamy faith in the magic of the process. Any form of criticism or coercion disappears, because “the North Koreans won’t negotiate under pressure”—when, in the past, the North Koreans have negotiated only under pressure.

Kim’s goal in the six-party talks is clear: He wants to trade a single, aging nuclear complex for the easing of sanctions. By all accounts, North Korea’s supreme leader has the mentality and social skills of a troubled 13-year-old—but he seems to be doing remarkably well in these negotiations.

The alternative is not to end the talks or impose a blockade. It is, as Lefkowitz pointed out, to pursue a more sophisticated diplomacy familiar from the Cold War. Tie the improvement of relations to both security and human rights. Encourage the new South Korean government to demand more North Korean openness in exchange for resources and cash. Push the United Nations to identify North Korean entities for sanctions. Above all, talk about the rights of North Koreans once again, so the prisoners and the dead are not forgotten.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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