It was hardly a surprise that almost immediately following the Monday announcement that North Korea had agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons there would be 1) euphoria in hailing the agreement as a “victory” for the United States, (2) suggestions of some degree of moral equivalence between Pyongyang and Washington and 3) North Korea would attempt to change the terms of the agreement it had just reached, accusing the Bush administration of plotting its destruction.
In the accord, Washington declared that “it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade” North Korea “with conventional or nuclear weapons.” South Korea reaffirmed its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons, “while affirming that there exist no nuclear weapons within its territory.” In exchange, North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes.” The United States and other parties to the treaty “agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of [a] light-water reactor to the DPRK [North Korea].”
Within 24 hours of the signing of this agreement, however, Pyongyang’s propagandists had twisted this provision of the agreement into a non-negotiable demand.
“The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of [North Korea’s] dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing [a light-water reactor],” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. The following day, the Communist regime’s official Korea Central News Agency declared that “the true intention” of the United States is to use the Six-Party Talks “to disarm us and to crush us to death with its nuclear weapons.”
None of this rhetoric should surprise anyone familiar with North Korean negotiating tactics. Pyongyang has employed this strategy for decades, to intimidate negotiating partners and throw them off balance. Given its lengthy record of cheating — in particular its violations of the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement negotiated on then-President Clinton’s behalf by Jimmy Carter — North Korea’s statements about the substance of the Monday agreement cannot be ignored.
What is bizarre but not necessarily surprising is the reaction of several Americans who should know better. Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, suggests that both Washington and Pyongyang have behaved in troubling ways. “The North Koreans have every intention to lie, steal and cheat as much as they can get away with and as they have been doing for decades,” Mr. Allison said. “But they would also say we’ve been cheating them through the whole process or acting in bad faith.” Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment suggests that the agreement, now less than one week old, is a “victory” for those who believe that problems with rogue regimes can be resolved at the negotiating table.
The accord reached on Monday does not address other malevolent actions by the regime, ranging from drug trafficking to the systematic starvation of its people. Nevertheless, it may be instructive to note that despite its attempt to change the crucial particulars of the agreement, North Korea has not renounced the agreement or attempted to erase its signature. Negotiating with the Hermit Kingdom is always tedious and frustrating business. Washington and its partners in the negotiations must be firm in keeping the record straight about what was, and was not, agreed to with North Korea.