On Sept. 19, 2005, North Korea signed a widely heralded denuclearization agreement with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang pledged to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” In return, Washington agreed that the United States and North Korea would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations.”
Four days later, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sweeping financial sanctions against North Korea designed to cut off the country’s access to the international banking system, branding it a “criminal state” guilty of counterfeiting, money laundering and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration says that this sequence of events was a coincidence.
Frankly, as incompetent as the Bushies are, you can’t rule that out. But Michael Hirsch says,
Bush administration officials will not concede this publicly, but hardliners in Washington have long been pushing for a policy of regime change against Pyongyang. President Bush himself subtly underlined that threat when, at a Monday morning news conference, he said “the oppressed and impoverished people of North Korea deserve” a “brighter future.” Hence, only days after China orchestrated a framework agreement in September 2005 that promised the North it would be rewarded if it abandoned its nuclear program, including with a civilian nuclear reactor, the Bush administration imposed sanctions on the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia that effectively froze the accounts of Kim and other North Korean elites. The action is believed to have so riled Kim that he refused to return to the talks.
Let’s go back to Harrison for a moment:
Whatever the truth, I found on a recent trip to Pyongyang that North Korean leaders view the financial sanctions as the cutting edge of a calculated effort by dominant elements in the administration to undercut the Sept. 19 accord, squeeze the Kim Jong Il regime and eventually force its collapse. My conversations made clear that North Korea’s missile tests in July and its threat last week to conduct a nuclear test explosion at an unspecified date “in the future” were directly provoked by the U.S. sanctions. In North Korean eyes, pressure must be met with pressure to maintain national honor and, hopefully, to jump-start new bilateral negotiations with Washington that could ease the financial squeeze. When I warned against a nuclear test, saying that it would only strengthen opponents of negotiations in Washington, several top officials replied that “soft” tactics had not worked and they had nothing to lose.
If you know the history of the Bushies and North Korea, you understand that last sentence is a joke.
It was no secret to journalists covering the September 2005 negotiations, or to the North Koreans, that the agreement was bitterly controversial within the administration and represented a victory for State Department advocates of a conciliatory approach to North Korea over proponents of “regime change” in Pyongyang. The chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, faced strong opposition from key members of his own delegation at every step of the way.
You get the picture, I’m sure.
Back to Michael Hirsch:
Indeed by late last week, when U.S. officials grew increasingly certain that North Korea would detonate a nuclear device, there was a sense of resignation in Washingtonâ€”almost a feeling of relief that, at long last, strategic clarity had arrived. â€œAt least there would be a unified front against North Koreaâ€ if Pyongyang tested, one senior official told NEWSWEEK on Friday. â€œAnd it would light a fire under some parties.â€ He was referring to China. For the last year Washington had effectively subcontracted nuclear negotiations to Beijing, which was given the lead in the â€œsix-partyâ€ talks that pitted Pyongyang against the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. China was key because, as Pyongyangâ€™s longtime ally, it held the strongest hand against North Korea, controlling more than 70 percent of its energy supplies.
China has not been particularly tough with North Korea in the past. However,
The hope in Washington is now that Chinese President Hu Jintao will decide heâ€™s finally had enough of his out-of-control former junior partner. With Sundayâ€™s test Kim has now twice rebuffed Huâ€™s pleas for restraint. The last time was July, when Kim ignored the Chinese leaderâ€™s request not to test missiles. This time Kim insulted Hu the day after an important Sino-Japanese summit with Tokyoâ€™s new prime minister, Shinzo Abeâ€”a nationalist who will no doubt be probing Chinaâ€™s strategic determinationâ€”and on the eve of a big communist party plenary session at which Huâ€™s reputation will be on the line.
For Washington, almost everything is riding on this hope.
In other words, President George W. “lone cowboy” Bush is hoping China will save his ass.
U.S. officials are talking tough about beefing up their Proliferation Security Initiative, which mainly involves interdicting suspect shipments on the high seas.
Remember the So San affair?
But last week they quickly walked back any speculation that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hillâ€™s stark rhetoric from last weekâ€”â€œNorth Korea can have a future or it can have these weapons. It canâ€™t have both,â€ Hill saidâ€”meant a threat of war. The Pentagon is extremely leery of any military options, with the heavily-populated South Korean capital of Seoul lying vulnerable to missile attack just across the North Korean border. What Hillâ€™s comment meant instead, several U.S. officials said, was that the U.N. Security Council would move to impose sanctions, and key countries such as China, Japan and South Korea would join in, ensuring that the Pyongyang regime remains utterly friendless.
At the Guardian, Simon Tisdall explains there may not be much anyone can do about Korea.
A storm of predictable condemnation rained down on the heads of North Korea’s isolated regime in the wake of its first atomic weapons test today…. But the strong words did not disguise the weakness of the international community’s position now that North Korea has finally crossed the line and indisputably become what it has long claimed to be – a nuclear weapons state. In short, the big powers can huff and puff, but there is not a lot new in practical terms that they can do. This development was expected. They simply couldn’t stop it. …
… Sanctions are the obvious tool to which the US, Japan and other concerned spectators such as Britain will now resort. But such measures have been tried before and have failed to modify Pyongyang’s behaviour. In fact, they may have made it worse.
It is only a little more than a year since North Korea agreed in principle to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for US technology, aid and security guarantees. But US financial sanctions imposed on North Korean banks and businesses operating via Macau last winter appear to have caused serious pain in Pyongyang. Intentionally or not, they scuppered any chance of resurrecting the six-party process once it hit renewed difficulties. …
… The prospect that, like it or not, the international community will ultimately have to deal with North Korea on its own terms has significant implications elsewhere. Iran, whose suspect nuclear activities will soon be brought before the UN security council, may be encouraged in its defiance if no effective punitive action is taken against North Korea. Conversely, those in Washington who argue against direct talks with Iran, and against offering the sort of incentives proffered North Korea last year, may be persuaded by today’s events that dialogue is the only viable future option. Arguably, it was the Bush administration’s refusal to persist with former president Bill Clinton’s “framework agreement” with North Korea that has led to the present impasse.
Mr. Tisdall is an optimist. “Those in Washington” who helped bring the present impasse about are more likely to redouble their efforts to make matters worse.
Tim Grieve sums it up: The hard-liners in the White House were convinced from the beginning that a confrontational approach would bring North Korea to heel. Instead, the situation has deteriorated, and continues to deteriorate as the Bushies undermine their own diplomacy and throw away one opportunity after another to lower the temperature on a hot crisis.