US-DPRK Deal: Instant Reaction

Only a couple of months after his ascension, Kim Jong Un and AssociatesTM have managed to wrangle a preliminary deal with the Americans.  In exchange for 240,000 tons of aid, the North Koreans have agreed to stop testing nukes and ballistic missiles, halt uranium enrichment, and allow the IAEA back into Yongbyon. Judging from what the 240,000 tons will do to North Korea’s food deficit, not too shabby. After all, the North Koreans haven’t exactly given up anything – they’ve just agreed to stop what they’ve been doing.

The first question that popped into my mind is “why.” Why now? At first blush, it looks like much of it has to do with internal factors: Kim Jong Un and AssociatesTM  want to show some early results to consolidate power. And as described above, this is an extremely palatable deal to the North Koreans. North Korea may well be sitting on top of enough fissile material to form in their own eyes a credible deterrent (perhaps the very thought this is a mystery is enough of a deterrent on its own), while the most recent tests of the Taepodong variants have yielded miserable results.

The most that the regime is sacrificing is control: the foreigners coming in to inspect Yongbyon and the humanitarian aid distribution will no doubt increase the regime’s exposure. But it’s nothing that Pyongyang hasn’t faced before.

The deal is a win for the Americans if this results in something more substantive – which is the bigger question on everyone’s mind. There are certain reasons to think that at least for the better part of this year, the more substantive deal isn’t going to come about. For instance, the regime has little incentive to negotiate with an America that may very well be pre-occupied with Iran, whether it volunteers for war or not. They may also be waiting to see what kind of technology the Israelis employ to bust those Iranian bunkers.

The North Koreans may also be waiting to see what happens in November with the US election. Dealing with the status quo ante would probably be preferable to dealing with whichever candidate the Republicans decide to field – a President Santorum would probably cause many cringes in Pyongyang. Equally cringeworthy from the North Korean point of view could be the Republicans holding the House and capturing the Senate, virtually hamstringing any president, Obama or otherwise, from dealing with the DPRK regime.

Finally, the John Bolton corner of the room will do some cringing of their own. With the assumption that the North Koreans would never deal in good faith with something they would never give up, this deal is only a speed bump. What if the North Koreans have squirreled away centrifuges in some cave somewhere? What if they tested four nukes, instead of two and are satisfied with their technology? What if they’re funneling missiles to the Iranians to see how they fare against Tel Aviv? What if all those sanctions are actually working – and we need more? For all we know, the Bolton camp may very well be right; if North Korea sans nukes and missiles makes it simply another resource-poor third world country that the United States will ignore, then why would the North Koreans negotiate in good faith? Indeed, North Korean diplomats have not helped us in this regard.

The problem is whether that assumption is actually correct. If there’s anything that Kim Jong Un and AssociatesTM have signaled with this move, it is that they’re willing, at the very least, to pretend to negotiate. But what if the decision itself was a product of some back and forth between those who wanted to have nothing to do with the Americans, and an opposite camp that wants this as an opening salvo to a campaign of China-style reform? What if this isn’t some North Korean ruse? Mr. Bolton’s preferred response would certainly be counterproductive. If there is anyone whom we don’t want to encourage in Pyongyang, it is those who are perfectly happy with the DPRK’s status quo.

American negotiators are smart folks: I had the chance to learn from one in my own days in Washington. Obviously, this question has always been at the back of the mind of US negotiators. But with a supposed new boss in Pyongyang, a level of uncertainty regarding North Korean intentions and capabilities, and folks jostling for position in this new regime, this quandary is no doubt amplified. Since 1994, it seems that American negotiators have never had less information in front of them.

Envy them, I do not.

PS: this deal certainly will deflect a lot of the “negative” attention that those twenty to thirty about-to-be-repatriated-to-certain-persecution refugees have drawn in the past couple of weeks. Wouldn’t be surprised if Beijing quietly repatriated the rest of the refugees in the next day or two.

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