One suspects that if George W. Bush were not in the White House, he would be condemning the accord with North Korea announced on Monday. As it is, the president was decidedly lukewarm in his endorsement of what others are prematurely calling a breakthrough. His caution is warranted, because the six-party deal unveiled in Beijing has loopholes big enough to fly an ICBM through.
The most obvious flaw became apparent within hours: North Korea and the United States have very different ideas of what was agreed to. Pyongyang issued a blunt addendum saying it would not even dream of disarming until the U.S. and other signatories provided it with a light-water nuclear reactor. The Bush administration has rightly refused to deliver a “civilian” nuclear plant that could be turned to military uses—at least not before an ironclad verification program is in place.
No such inspection agreement has been reached, nor is one likely. It is hard to imagine the world’s most closed society giving foreign inspectors the run of its countryside. Under the 1994 Agreed Framework, inspectors were allowed to visit only the atomic facility at Yongbyon. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence indicates that Kim Jong Il set up a covert effort to enrich uranium far away from the world’s prying gaze. Even today Kim will not admit to the existence of this secret program, making it doubtful that he will honor his latest commitment to abandon all “existing nuclear programs.”
This does not necessarily mean that it was a mistake for the U.S. to sign Monday’s joint statement. North Korea did offer concessions, at least on paper, that go beyond those reached in 1994—for instance, it committed to dismantling rather than simply freezing its atomic weapons programs. And, unlike in 1994, the U.S. did not commit to massive aid before the dismantling is completed.
The administration has already concluded that there is no easy way to militarily wipe out North Korean weapons complexes—we’re not even sure where all of them are—so a deal with Pyongyang may be worth trying. At the very least, it might slow North Korea’s nuclear arms production. And if North Korea reneges on the agreement, as it appears to be doing already, that can help to further isolate it internationally.
The real risk inherent in the agreement is that it will extend an economic lifeline to the world’s most despicable regime, a regime that, since the early 1990s, has presided over the deaths of at least 2 million of its own citizens in an unnecessary famine. A large percentage of the population remains malnourished. And more than 150,000 political prisoners—including entire families—suffer in slave labor camps. Meanwhile, the man responsible for all this misery, Kim, lives the life of Nero. Even as his people are reduced to eating tree bark, this pompadoured popinjay guzzles oceans of vintage cognac and wine, gorges himself on multi-course banquets of sushi and caviar and enjoys the services of multiple concubines.
Someone so demented hardly makes a reliable negotiating partner—or the proper recipient of economic aid. Although an agreement with him may be an acceptable short-term expedient, the ultimate goal of the U.S. and its allies should be to remove Kim and his criminal clique from power. The Bush administration has been slowly pursuing this goal by trying to squeeze North Korea financially. The biggest obstacles to doing more are the governments in Beijing and Seoul—North Korea’s largest trading partners—which seem to view the U.S. as a greater menace than Kim.
The attitude of China, America’s rival, is easy to understand. Less forgivable is the attitude of America’s ally, South Korea. The leftist government led by Roh Moo-hyun is providing the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to prop up the Northern regime, and it is doing precious little to aid refugees fleeing the North. (A massive exodus could lead to the collapse of the North, just as it contributed to the collapse of East Germany in 1989.) Yet it is protected from Northern aggression by the presence of 32,700 U.S. troops and the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Washington needs to rethink this incongruous arrangement. It should tell Seoul to stop subsidizing Kim or else lose U.S. protection. If South Korea were to actively work to undermine Kim, the chances of toppling this terrible tyrant would appreciably improve. That would offer better prospects of long-term peace than the deal unveiled on Monday.