Learning What Not To Do: The North Korean Nuclear Example

Friday, May 27, 2016

There are no historical precedents to justify current American confidence that the treaty with Iran will prevent it from going nuclear. There are, however, historical precedents of how unauthorized and unhelpful secret back channels have derailed ongoing major U.S. governmental diplomatic initiatives and negotiations that involve difficult players.

A prime example is our failure to stop North Korea from going nuclear.

The reality that we now have a nuclear North Korea is a specific manifestation of the fallacy embodied in the current nuclear deal with Iran. In other words, the failure of decades-long nuclear negotiations with North Korea since the Clinton Administration has been a result of exactly the same kind of false assumptions and underlying principles in the current treaty with Tehran.

The essential issue is whether an autocratic regime with avowed enemies to destroy can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons program without fearing the debilitating effects of a system of meaningful economic and financial sanctions. Or without the existence of sanctions, would the Iranians, bent on establishing regional hegemony and destroying Israel, abide by the promises to reduce their uranium enrichment activities (to cease uranium enrichment is never part of the treaty)?

The North Koreans began their nuclear program after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. It was the most pressing geopolitical issue of the Clinton Administration. By 1994, the Clinton Administration was in full swing of negotiating with North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung regime on the Stalinist state’s nuclear program. The Clinton Administration understood that the primary bargaining chip for the U.S. was the uncompromising system of economic, financial, and military sanctions led by Washington.

But former President Jimmy Carter embarked on his own initiative in holding separate back channel talks with Kim Il-sung, pushing rigorously to remove the U.S.-led sanctions, thus fundamentally weakening President Clinton’s position at the negotiation table. As a result, Pyongyang toughened up its stance toward the White House. Carter even bypassed the White House in promising the North Koreans, without authorization, America’s willingness to remove sanctions, which the White House immediately denied.

Carter’s back channel talks with Kim threw Washington into chaos. The New York Times reported that “at times Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton seemed to openly contradict each other...Mr. Carter told Mr. Kim [Il-sung] that the White House had ‘stopped the sanction activity in the United Nations’...but Administration officials quickly responded that they had done nothing of the kind.”

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