Astute thinking quickly needed on Korean peninsular
North Korea has been threatening war against the South, and the US and the South Korea have been upping the ante by holding military exer- cises close to North Korea.
"One small step forward by North Korea and the US, one large step for mankind. The political fight to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear bomb making activities seems at last, in the dying days of the Bush presidency, to be entering a serious phase." Yes, I was able to write that three years ago. But since then we have plunged from optimism to the darkest pessimism. North Korea has been threatening war against the South, and the US and the South Korea have been upping the ante by holding military exercises close to North Korea.
After seven years of erratic US policies under President George W. Bush - met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean onesthe negotiations ended up almost where they started following the highly fruitful diplomacy in the last days of the Clinton Administration that transformed North Korea from total intransigence to a willing and helpful negotiating partner.
Well, not quite back to where the Clinton Administration had to leave off. North Korea now has tripled the amount of nuclear weapons' material in store. Worse, it has exploded two nuclear bombs and probably has enough material for half a dozen more.
This must count as one of President George W. Bush's worst foreign policy feats. Commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honoured (and the Republican majority in Congress in Clinton's time also torpedoed commitments made by the Administration).
Bush's first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was made a fool of. After he declared that the new Administration would try and complete the work of its predecessor, Powell was publicly repudiated. The insider work of VicePresident Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld pulled the rug from beneath him. Even at one time when Bush tried to take a more positive approach, second-tier officials working in committee at the inter-agency level managed to deflect it - such was the power of the senior bureaucracy, (a lesson in the powerless of the presidency that President Barack Obama should take notice of).
Fortunately, the negotiations were salvaged by a very determined second term Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rica, who took personal charge of the negotiations and empowered a skilful principal negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the labyrinthine of confusion and misunderstandings that were now heaped one on top of the other.
The force and frequency of US negotiating offers were stepped up. Pyongyang's twists and turns and often appalling misbehaviour were more tolerated. In September 2005, the US formally offered a non-aggression pledge and an offer, in principle, to normalize relations. It also resurrected discussion of the Clinton decision to help finance and build a 'light water' reactor that would help satisfy the North's domestic power needs, without producing more bomb-making material. (The reactor sits half finished.) In return the North agreed to denuclearize and to open itself to international inspection.
Perhaps inevitably, both sides interpreted the agreement differently. The North again became intransigent. In October 2006 it exploded an underground nuclear device. Yet Rice managed to persuade Bush to dilute the hostile rhetoric. The Administration continued with its more conventional diplomacy. The hard-liners in the Administration, including Cheney, were sidelined.
The Rice/Hill push continued forward. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Surprisingly, the offer bore fruit. The North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other important facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. It also said it would allow back both US and UN inspectors. But when Washington stalled on removing the North from its terrorism list Pyongyang also stalled.
Washington capitulated on the terrorism list. A deal was made, with the added bonus of the North agreeing to open up undeclared sites as well, but with the proviso that inspections are agreed to by ' mutual consent', leaving Pyongyang a card to play.
It played it-over the question of how the US could verify what North Korea had agreed to, in particular the questions the US had over the suspected building of an uranium enrichment plant which could be an alternative source of bomb-producing material to the plutonium facility it had agreed to renounce.
The negotiations came to a shuddering halt in the spring of last year when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test. Then a few months ago it revealed that it had indeed built a nuclear enrichment plant, albeit at the moment it is only enriching uranium to the low requirements of producing electricity not bombs.