It was heartening the other day to hear news that North Korea had agreed to end its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic concessions. On its face, the accord was quite an accomplishment. Leaders in the Bush administration were cautious in touting its success. Understandable for a number of reasons, most notably North Korea’s reputation for being a nation that backs out of agreements. The main reason for such reticence on the part of the Bush administration and the State Department, however, had less to do with North Korea’s unpredictability, than it had to do with the accord’s unique ability to be interpreted in two manners.
The understanding among three of the nations that were negotiating with North Korea (the United States, Russia, Japan, and South Korea), was that North Korea would open all of its nuclear facilities to invasive inspections and in this process would observably dismantle its weapons programs. Down the road, it was envisioned that North Korea would then have earned access to a light water reactor for domestic power production (the United States, while agreeing to this, does not want a light water reactor going to the North Koreans). North Korea, on the other hand, has since signaled that the light water reactor was more of an up front condition of the agreement rather than an award for good behavior.
The question of the reactor has been a main sticking point in negotiations from the very beginning. North Korea says they cannot go forward without one, the United States has said it cannot agree to one. In the end, it was up to the fourth negotiating partner, China, to make this agreement happen at all. In a display of political bravura that is a portent of its future, China placed text of an agreement in front of both the North Koreans and the Americans and all but forced them to sign. The North Koreans signed in order to protect desperately needed aid that the Chinese provide. The United States signed in order to keep China from going to the press and declaring the Americans as the largest roadblock to an accord.
The accord is a huge step forward in negotiations. Any agreement that leaves both the North Koreans and the Americans unhappy opens the door to further concessions that will eventually lead to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. But this agreement is a little foggy. Is North Korea entitled to a light water reactor? Yes, they are. The only question is when. Neither side appears to be the culprit in claiming that their interpretation is the most accurate. Its easy to believe the North Koreans are backing out of yet another agreement, but this is not so. It is also easy to believe that the United States antagonized the North Koreans into all but denouncing America’s interpretation of the agreement by being overly aggressive in negotiations and in later claiming a premature diplomatic victory, but this is also not true.
The agreement is a step forward. That is all. It is not the end of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but an end is in sight. This agreement is about the two principal players, the U.S. and North Korea, seeing a way past non-negotiable differences and seeing that accord is possible. The Chinese were truly deft at forcing an agreement that provides no timetables or concrete commitments on the part of either side. It bought time for the North Koreans to become comfortable with the idea that they will eventually have to give up their nukes, and for the Americans to become comfortable with the idea that they will have to provide aid and infrastructure to an avowed enemy to make sure this happens. This agreement is only the first among many leading to an outcome that will bring North Korea in from the cold and help stabilize the entire Pacific.