North Korea surprisingly has agreed to stop enriching uranium, not to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, and to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to return to the country. In return, the U.S. has agreed not to advocate the overthrow of the North Korean government and to deliver 240,000 tons of food aid. This has the makings of a good deal, if the North Koreans comply.
It is dissatisfying to hold off calling for the overthrow of one of the world’s most repressive governments. But the United States clearly has no intention of overthrowing the North Korean government. To the contrary, the last three U.S. administrations held their breath and did nothing while the venal dynasty of the North built and tested nuclear weapons, disseminated their knowledge and parts and delivery systems and laboratories to countries like Pakistan and Syria.
That’s even before getting to the repugnancy of North Korea starving and removing any vestige of human rights from its own people, provoking South Korea with military aggression, kidnapping South Koreans and Japanese. Still, there has been no indication across the past fifteen years that the United States would do anything that might provoke a collapse.
Since we clearly aren’t interested in turning the screws on the North Korean government, a deal that reduces the suffering of the North Korean people and gains some information on -- and even possible control over -- their nuclear programs is worth having.
But North Korea is a serial violator of agreements. Their pattern under Kim Jong Il (predecessor of the current leader) was to provoke an international crisis and then barter away the provocation they had changed the status quo with, so that every deal gave them a little more money or food for returning to the status quo. Like father like son may yet prove true.
What does the North Korean deal tell us? Where this most foreign and isolated country is concerned, it is almost impossible to know. It could mean the Great Successor, in power less than two months, is firmly in control of the security apparatus. Or it could mean the exact opposite: it acted while he was too new to be in control. Or he may never gain control but instead be a puppet shielding from view the forces making decisions.
It could mean the leadership feared they could not control public outrage over food shortages. Or -- more likely -- there were rumblings from the military about too little food even for them (you will recall the Great Successor’s first act was to declare the military had first priority on food). Or it could mean Kim Jong Un is a new kind of North Korean leader, genuinely interested in ruling his country beneficently.
It could mean the North Koreans no longer value nuclear weapons. Or it could mean their nuclear arsenal is now so large they have concluded there is no need for further uranium processing. It could mean they intend to diversify their economy away from proliferation of missiles and nuclear components as their sole export. Or it could mean they have diversified their program sufficiently that allowing inspectors into the facility at Yongbyon is no constraint on their enrichment activity elsewhere. It could mean they have been priced out of the proliferation market. Or it could mean non-proliferation regimes and financial tracking are tight enough to squeeze them beyond even their profit margin.
The agreement was preceded by weeks of nasty propaganda about South Korea. That could indicate North Korea’s leadership was shoring up its anti-South credentials before compromising on its nuclear program. Or it could mean they are seeking to separate us from South Korea, increasing the danger to our long-standing ally in the south.
The talks were held in Beijing, the Chinese midwifing this deal. That could illustrate the influence of China’s diplomacy, delivering to us something we could not achieve for ourselves these past ten years. Or it could illustrate the limits of China’s influence, if the North Koreans crave our acceptance or need our material assistance. It may show growing tensions in the Chinese-North Korean alliance that Pyongyang, the Chinese incapable or unwilling to support them. Or it may show growing trust that Kim Jong Un trusted Beijing enough to make this deal with us.
The truth is that we just don’t know the answer to any of these questions.
(photo credit: Karl Baron)