Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Triumph of Diplomacy

When it comes to halting nuclear proliferation, talk is not only cheap, it's downright dangerous.

Consider the case of North Korea. The Bush Administration has invested years of diplomatic effort, aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. It sponsored the so-called Six Party Talks, inviting the participation of the North Korea's neighbors in hammering out some sort of non-proliferation agreement.

After years of fits and starts--including a small-scale DPRK nuclear test in 2006--the consortium reached a supposed "milestone" agreement in 2007. North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program, in exchange for economic assistance and certain political favors, such as removing Kim Jong-il's regime from the list of countries that support terrorism.

Never mind that Pyongyang never lived up to its end of the bargain. The State Department crowd kept insisting that North Korea would eventually comply, and treated minor, grudging steps like some sort of diplomatic miracle.

When the DPRK blew up an outdated cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear complex a few months back, footage of that event was broadcast around the world. The inference was clear: See, the North Koreans can be trusted! We kept waiting for Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to proclaim "peace in our time."

Flash forward three months, and the Six Party Accord is in tatters. North Korea has now barred U.N. inspectors from its nuclear facilities, and announced plans to restart Yongbyon, the same complex that previously provided plutonium for its nuclear program. Within a year, Yongbyon could again be producing material for more bombs.

What happened? Officially, Pyongyang is upset that the U.S. hasn't moved quickly enough to take it off the terrorism list. But, as The Wall Street Journal reminds us, that was contingent upon North Korea disclosing all of its nuclear activities. It's merely the latest round of what we call the nuclear rope-a-dope, perfected by Mr. Kim and his emissaries over the last decade.

The tactic goes something like this: Bluster, then offer to talk. When the negotiations bog down (due to North Korean intransigence), call off the talks and bluster some more. At that point, the U.S. and its allies will make concessions, to restart the diplomatic process. In response, Pyongyang will offer a few vague promises, even sign the occasional agreement. Then, when North Korean compliance is questioned, start the process all over again.

While the diplomatic process lurches along, Pyongyang is free to continue convert nuclear development, and share the technology with other rogue states. As the Six Party talks dragged on in Beijing, Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor that looked like the one at Yongbyon. You can probably guess who provided the plans and engineering expertise.

As the WSJ observes, North Korea's latest move is an attempt to wrest more concessions from the U.S., and delay additional talks until after our presidential election. Pyongyang clearly believes that Barack Obama will be the next President, and it can cut a better deal with his administration. Senator Obama's vow to meet world leaders "without preconditions" must have been music to Kim Jong-il's ears.

The collapse of the Six Party deal was both predictable and inevitable. North Korea has never lived up to any diplomatic deal with the west, and seeks out any opportunity to cheat and obfuscate. We can expect more of the same in the years to come, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

By any standard, the latest North Korean nuclear deal has devolved into a miserable failure. But, if it's any consolation to the striped-pants set, the Six Party Accord is a roaring success compared to the other, major diplomatic effort, aimed at ending the nuclear program of another outlaw nation.

We speak of Iran, which has been "talking" with representatives of the European Union for the past three years. During that time, Tehran has steadily expanded its uranium enrichment efforts, fielded new ballistic missiles and continued its steady advance toward acquiring nuclear arms. Despite all that, the Bush Administration remains "committed" to the diplomatic track in dealing with the Iranian program.

Somewhere, Neville Chamberlain is smiling. But that's a cheap shot. Even the late British Prime Minister (ultimately) recognized the failure of his negotiations with Hitler. We wonder if anyone in the State Department will admit the folly of trying to appease North Korea.

At this point, Pyongyang still has a nuclear program, and it's thumbing its nose at the world community. We can only imagine where the DPRK will be after another four or five years of focused diplomacy.

It's not a matter of refusing to talk with North Korea. But there's a time for diplomacy, and a time for breaking off contact and tightening the economic and political screws that brought Pyongyang to the bargaining table. Choosing between rewards and sanctions, it's time for less carrot and more stick. Any other approach would be both foolish and perilous.

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