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Commentary No. 204, Mar. 1, 2007
"Charade or First Step? The United States-North Korea Agreement"
On Feb. 13, the United States, North Korea, and the four other powers in the six-party talks (China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia) issued a joint statement, which the U.S. State Department calls a "denuclearization action plan." John Bolton, a leading neo-con and Bush's former United Nations ambassador, immediately denounced it as a "charade" that "sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world." President Bush described the agreement differently. He said that the talks represented "the best opportunity to use diplomacy" and that the agreement was "the first step" towards a "nuclear weapons free [Korean] peninsula." Who is right?
First of all, what is the agreement? The agreement has several components. North Korea agreed to "shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility" and invite back IAEA personnel. It agreed further "to discuss [only discuss] with other parties a list of all its nuclear programs." In return, the United States agreed to start bilateral talks about full diplomatic relations, removing the designation of North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism, and terminating the Trading With the Enemy Act in relation to North Korea. Japan also agreed to bilateral talks "on the basis of the settlement of unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern" - a somewhat vague agenda. And everyone agreed to provide emergency energy assistance to North Korea within 60 days.
Why did the United States sign it? The New York Times said that the agreement "marks a major change of course for the Bush administration" and clearly Bolton agrees. So do most other commentators. It has been pointed out that the agreement is quite close to that reached by the Clinton administration and denounced by the Bush regime. Most commentators also agree that this agreement could probably have been reached five years ago, at a moment when North Korea had not yet tested nuclear weapons, had the Bush regime been willing.
So, what has changed? The reality of declining options seems to have hit decision-makers in Washington. The fact is that North Korea now has some weapons and it is doubtful they will give them up. The fact is that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and is concentrating its other immediate political energies on Iran. The fact is that the Republicans lost the last election, largely over foreign policy issues. The fact is that its allies become less amenable to United States policies as each day goes by. From a United States point of view, the agreement removes the issue from the front of the geopolitical scene temporarily. There will be ample opportunity for the United States to backtrack later.
And why did North Korea sign? For one thing, it was under heavy Chinese pressure to sign something. And it may have seemed unwise to the North Koreans to push China too hard at this time. More importantly, it did get something it has long wanted and which the Bush regime has long refused - the promise of bilateral talks with the United States concerning full diplomatic relations. And it did get some urgently needed energy assistance. It did this without giving up too much. To be sure, it has to close down the Yongbyon reactor. But beyond that, the rest is open to "discussion" and no mention is made of actually dismantling existing nuclear weapons.
From China's point of view, this agreement reduces United States diplomatic pressure on it to "rein in" North Korea. From South Korea's point of view, this permits the pursuance of its slightly tarnished sunshine policy. Only Japan is grumbling, and has indicated that it will not contribute to the energy assistance, which means that South Korea has to pick up Japan's share - not something that will reinforce already shaky Japan-South Korea relations.
So, is it a charade or a first step? I am inclined to believe it is certainly the first and only possibly the second. What the agreement brings to the forefront once again is the declining ability of the United States to achieve its primary goals in the geopolitical arena.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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