On September 19 at the six-party talks in Beijing, North Korea and the United States signed a “joint statement” in which North Korea committed itself to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and rejoining the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. For its part the United States agreed to “respect” North Korea’s “sovereignty” and “discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor.” Initially, this seemed cause for celebration, especially by those who had opposed the Bush Administration’s hard-line policy and had favored negotiations. A New York Times editorial, for instance, stated, “Diplomacy, it seems, does work after all.”
The next day, however, the picture changed radically. The joint statement–not a treaty–had left almost all questions of timing and even of concrete substance up in the air. As Fred Kaplan pointed out in Slate, the disarmament was to be accomplished only “at an early date,” while the discussions (not the provision) on the light-water reactor were to begin “at an appropriate time”–two masterpieces of imprecision, especially in combination. For the United States, which has long adamantly opposed providing any reactor, an appropriate date might be the year 2300, or such time as the regime of North Korea’s President Kim Jong Il has collapsed, or never. But then North Korea’s official news service announced, in its characteristic vividly insulting prose, that “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 challenge was fundamental–an obvious deal-breaker, not only for the Bush Administration but surely for any imaginable US Administration. The United States is hardly likely to provide nuclear technology to Kim Jong Il–a dictator George W. Bush has said he “loathes” and, North Korean style, called a “pygmy”–as long as he possesses nuclear arms. Nevertheless, in statements as surprising in their way as North Korea’s bombshell, the United States made light of the news. “I think we will not get hung up on this statement,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said offhandedly. “We will stick to the text of the Beijing statement, and I believe we can make progress if everybody sticks to what was actually agreed to.” (Of course, the written agreement in fact has nothing to stick to, as it deliberately left all questions of timing up in the air.) The United States’ chief negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was even more insouciant. In an interview on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, he called North Korea’s defiance “inconvenient”–twice, so no one could doubt that the word had been chosen carefully.
What is going on? Why did the tiny, poor dictatorship, proud possessor of a small nuclear arsenal, on one day agree to give it up and the next throw up a fatal obstacle to the process, and why did the world’s self-described superpower and scourge of dictatorships and “evil” smile and pretend that nothing had happened?