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?

A conventional interpretation might hold that the promises of both sides are sincere, but as in many negotiations, the path is rocky. We can hope that is so. But another view is possible. Sometimes the continuation of more or less open-ended negotiations is itself a goal of one or both parties. In the current case, both sides had in fact reached an impasse in their policies. The Bush Administration, after all, had once had a very clear and resolute global antiproliferation policy. It was military pre-emption and “regime change.” The policy was announced with fanfare by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address, in which he said, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons”–and named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the prime offenders, linking them as the “axis of evil.” At the top of the list was Iraq, against which war was duly waged. That war has failed decisively, and in at least two ways. First, weapons of mass destruction–the war’s justification–of course have not been found, and, second, the US military machine has been stretched to the breaking point. It is not fit for further wars, whether in the name of nonproliferation or anything else.

For the Iraq War was never only about Iraq. It was also a demonstration project for the wider policy of stopping proliferation and otherwise extending American power by military means. To understand the Bush Administration’s predicament now, we have to imagine what the situation would have been if the Iraq War had gone as the Administration hoped–if the WMD had been present and duly removed and the regime replaced by an acceptable new one. In that case, there is every reason to suppose that the United States would now be turning the screws on North Korea. Or it would perhaps have done so as early as 2003, after the troops had quit the flower-strewn streets of Iraq. Certainly, the White House would not now be swallowing North Korean insults in its eagerness to get back to negotiations.

North Korea, for its part, had for most of this time played its hand more successfully. While the United States was failing in Iraq, North Korea was withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, turning the plutonium in its reactor into bomb-grade materials, and most likely creating a parallel uranium enrichment program and building up its nuclear arsenal, and announcing itself to be a nuclear power–all without receiving so much as a slap on the wrist from the international community. But more recently that policy, too, was threatening to exact a cost. If the six-party talks broke down and North Korea were held responsible, then international sanctions might follow. Military action by the United States, though unlikely, could not be altogether ruled out. The solution? A “breakthrough” that was not a true breakthrough, a “road map” (to borrow a relevant phrase from the Middle East) faint and vague enough to provide obstacles for infinite delays. Meanwhile, the nuclear buildup could proceed.

The high hopes raised by the agreement may one day be realized. For now, the United States and North Korea have succeeded only in creating, each for its own reasons, the appearance of an agreement. They do not yet have an agreement.