Six factors led to the new agreement just reached between all the nations of Northeast Asia and the U.S. on the North Korean nuclear program. Together, they moved the two main antagonists, North Korea and the United States, toward a compromise that will benefit both if carried out. These same factors could pressure all the signators to complete the step-by-step process needed to disarm North Korea.
Let’s examine each of these in turn. First, the situation of North Korea itself. A poor, isolated country with nothing to export save fear and tyranny, it is in a weak strategic position. The sanctions and economic incentives clearly played a part in their decision to compromise.
Second, the unanimity of the other five nations in the six-party talks. All five want to stop a nuclear-armed North Korea from emerging. They differ in tactics, but are united in efforts to stop Pyongyang from trying to perfect the flawed nuclear device they tested late last year. That unity recently extended to the unanimous declaration of the Security Council condemning North Korea and imposing sanctions on the regime for its October 9, 2006 nuclear test.
Third, Chinese diplomacy. The October 9th test surprised and angered China, upsetting its greater strategic plans. China does not want North Korea destabilizing its border regions or provoking Japan. That’s just what happened after the October test. Japan started a public debate over whether Japan should get nuclear weapons–the last thing China wants.
State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan,, China’s third-highest ranking official, quickly visited Pyongyang to read the riot act to the North Korean leaders. China cannot dictate North Korea’s actions, but the pressure soon brought an end to North Korean nuclear tests and an agreement to return to negotiations. China also convinced the United States to come to the table, choreographing talks in Beijing that produced the first of several breakthrough bilateral sessions.
Fourth, the power shift in Congress. The Democratic control of Congress flipped the pressures on the Bush administration. The effect was immediate. Shortly after the elections, at a House International Relations Committee hearing still under Republican rule, members led by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) hammered Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns over the failed administration policy, cajoling him to engage in direct talks with North Korea.
Fifth, the change in the Department of Defense leadership. An opponent of direct negotiations with North Korea, Donald Rumsfeld, is gone, replaced by a pragmatic secretary, Robert Gates, who is more inclined to engage in the direct negotiations previously seen as appeasement. Vice President Dick Cheney is now alone in the senior ranks opposed to dealing with Pyongyang–and he is distracted with trial troubles that may yet entangle him in the CIA leak investigation.
Sixth, the bleak political fortunes of the president of the United States. In the end, he and only he decides: deal or no deal. Formerly, President Bush lined up with Cheney and Rumsfeld, but now he badly needs some success. There is not another foreign policy victory that the president can likely achieve in 2007.
Certainly not in the Middle East. Nor in Latin America nor Europe. Nor is the president likely to make his mark combating global warming, or progressing towards energy independence. North Korea is one of the few (perhaps one of the only) possibilities. An agreement would give him the opportunity to justify the policies he has pursued for the last six years, whether true or not.
All these trends converged towards an agreement, overcoming the considerable difficulty of dealing with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s “hermit kingdom.”
Now, the way toward verifiable dismantlement of the nuclear program and the normalization of relations between North Korea and the United States has been reaffirmed. The accord struck in September 2005 has been recaptured, with the addition of agreement on the sequencing of the first steps for its implementation.
Even though these steps bring us back to the 1990s freeze negotiated by the Clinton administration and so ridiculed by the Bush administration over the past six years, they offer the possibility of moving beyond to the dismantlement of the weapons and materials North Korea accumulated during the diplomatic standoff. Many things could go wrong, including opposition to the deal by hardliners in several capitals.
But with persistence and the steady pressure provided by converging strategic realities in Northeast Asia this time the deal just might hold.
Joe Cirincione is Vice President for National Security and the author of the new book, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.
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