North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons exhibits all the bankrupt notions of international diplomacy. The idea that different nations with conflicting and often zero-sum interests can be led to a mutually gratifying accommodation through conferences and treaties has always been dubious. It depends on questionable assumptions, most important being that all nations desire economic development and peaceful coexistence as much as we in the West do, and wants such boons more than other less savory aims such as power, domination, honor, or the privileges of a ruling clique.
The history of North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons programs should have exploded all those assumptions. Indeed, even before achieving nuclear capability, the failure of our negotiations and treaties was patent. A few years of history illustrate this process. In 1991, President George Bush Sr. withdrew 100 nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. A few months later, the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed, under which both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities,” as well as accepting mutual inspections. The next year the North signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and allowed in inspectors.
Yet in March 1992, the U.S. had to impose sanctions on two companies in the North involved in developing missiles in violation of these signed treaties. In June new sanctions were imposed, and in September the International Atomic Energy Agency found discrepancies in North Korea’s initial report on its nuclear program. In February 1993, the IAEA demanded inspections of two nuclear waste sites. The North refused, and the next month threatened to withdraw from the NPT. After talks in New York, at which the U.S. offered the North a light-water nuclear reactor, the North suspended its withdrawal. Late that year, the CIA estimated that North Korea had separated 12 kilograms of plutonium, enough for two weapons.
In about two years the pattern of North Korea’s defiance and duplicity, and Western appeasement and inaction, had been set. The North would make an announcement promising to let in inspectors in order to head off sanctions, or threaten to withdraw from the NPT to wring concessions from the West, and then would come the revelation that the North had taken yet another clandestine step towards creating a nuclear weapon. Then “bilateral talks” would be announced and conducted, “agreed frameworks” and “moratoriums” signed and touted, promises of suspension of forbidden activities made by the North, and “appropriate compensation”–food aid, South Korea’s “sunshine policy” of détente with the North, and “economic normalization”–paid out by the West for such duplicitous North Korean concessions. This process (see this timeline) was repeated until the North had acquired the bomb, and is continuing today as the Kim regime develops nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the West Coast, something our intelligence agencies in 2001 estimated could be achieved by 2015.
The cause of this failure does not lie in bad negotiators, or badly written treaties. It arises from the assumption that the North wanted something we could give them, something more valuable than nuclear capability. It failed because we naively believed that non-lethal sanctions, signed agreements, or stern threats never followed up by action would override the game-changing advantages that accrued to North Korea’s ruling clique from nuclear weapons. It failed because of what Robert Conquest called the fundamental error of international diplomacy: believing other peoples think as we do, and so are amenable to the same forms of persuasion, or follow the same principles of honesty. It forgot that contracts are validated not by signatures, but by a “meeting of the minds.” But we have to be able to imagine minds that have radically different goals from our own.
The sorry history of North Korea’s nuclear weapons illustrates the truth expressed by Thomas Hobbes: “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Since 1953, North Korea has been given no reason to fear the American sword. Consequently, a failed state run by kleptocratic thugs dominates the world’s attention, compromises our international prestige, and lingers as a potential devastating threat to our security and that of our regional allies. What more could it want?