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October 13, 2008

Diplomacy and North Korea
Posted by James Lamond

This weekend it was announced that North Korea would be taken off America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism - followed the next day by an announcement from Pyongyang that they would resume dismantling their nuclear arms projects.  The Bush administration’s North Korea policy has in essence been a microcosm of its overall foreign policy.  It starts with an ideological refusal to negotiate and charged rhetoric that goes nowhere and makes us less safe.  It is then followed by a realization that diplomacy, though imperfect and messy, usually works. 

The latest agreement, brokered by Christopher Hill comes as a result of a recent boost in negotiations following a near collapse of talks due to the insistence of hardliners in the Bush administration- led by Dick Cheney- on a verification program, that that the New York Times editorial board described as conditions “that only a state vanquished in war might accept.” 

For the first six years of the Bush administration the hardliners had won over the agenda with North Korea, blocking any serious negotiations with the communist regime.  In that time North Korea produced enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons, even detonating one. 

Following the 2006 nuclear test in North Korea, Secretary Rice was able to convince the President to pursue a new course involving negotiations and compromise.  Throughout this time, the fighting between Cheney and Rice over the proper approach to North Korea got pretty intense.  However, Rice was able to win over the president saying that the most likely way to build a legacy was through negotiations and diplomacy.  For the past two years this has been the approach taken, and there has been progress in reaching an agreement with North Korea dismantling their nuclear facilities.

Then, in June, President Bush announced that he was prepared to take North Korea off the terrorism list in recognition of the country’s commitment to halt its development of nuclear weapons.  The conservative hardliners had a fit.  Cheney apparently was so angry that he canceled a meeting with visiting US foreign experts, and when asked why he said,

"I'm not going to be the one to announce this decision. You need to address your interest in this to the State Department," then left the room.

Of the June announcement, Richard Perle said,

"Usually the word 'meltdown' applies to a nuclear reactor. In this case it applies to Bush administration diplomacy which once aimed to halt the North Korean program and has now become an abject failure."

And Danielle Pletka, vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute, argued the deal would encourage nuclear proliferation saying,

"The evolution of the administration's approach to North Korea has been an object lesson in muddled diplomacy, a 'how-not-to' guide for handling rogue states. "

For a while now it seemed as if the Cheney and the hardliners had the president’s ear again.  As this influence grew, the administration took a stronger stance on an extremely strict and invasive verification program.  Which resulted talks with North Korea beganing to fall apart, and they ceased their dismantling efforts.  It looked pretty grim, until this weekend’s announcement that the U.S. was to take North Korea off of the list.

What does this show? Well it is pretty obvious that in this situation, as in many others, trying diplomacy seems to work better than forsaking it.  While our problems with North Korea may be far from over, surely this is a better result than what was going on in the first six years of the Bush administration.

In the past few years President Bush himself has demonstrated that the progressive strategy of engagement and diplomacy to be successful while proving his own administration’s ideologically-driven policies as failures.  Joe Cirincione and John Wolfsthal, two non-proliferation experts, write:

“The core of the Bush doctrine was the idea that military-backed regime change was the way to prevent proliferation. Iraq was the first application of this strategy and its most devastating failure. This has stayed the hand of those who would repeat the strategy with Iran and other countries. Indeed, the greatest successes of the administration have come where Secretary Rice broke from this strategy. Libya abandoned its nuclear program only when - over the opposition of Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - direct negotiations were used to change a regime's behavior rather than force a change in the actual regime. The total failure in North Korean policy was reversed in 2006 only after Rice convinced President Bush to negotiate with Pyongyang, a process they are now bungling.”

Regardless of what happens with North Korean between now and January, the next president will surely have to address  our relationship with the country. The problem is that John McCain has shown he is determined to continue policies of the conservative hardliners and return to the early years of the Bush administration.  In his statement following the announcement McCain said:

"I expect the administration to explain exactly how this new verification agreement advances American interests and those of our allies before I will be able to support any decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism."

McCain is not only out of line with his party’s president, but even with his own running mate, who said of the decision:

"[Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, of course, having worked on this strategy for quite some time, I have faith in her that they're making this wise decision and North Korea, of course, better live up to its end of the bargain there, in speaking with the other countries whom they've been working with, in promising the verification. That end of the bargain has got to be lived up to."

North Korea is just the latest example of McCain’s extreme approach to foreign policy.  Columnist Nicholas Kristoff writes that

“North Korea is one of the Bush administration’s greatest failures, and Mr. McCain seems intent on making it worse…  Even President Bush recognized the failure of his first term’s hard-line policy and abandoned it, instead pursuing negotiations and diplomatic solutions with North Korea. Mr. McCain fumes that this is accommodation and seems to prefer the first-term fist-waving that was emotionally satisfying but failed catastrophically.  A McCain administration would thus apparently mean no more diplomatic track with North Korea.”

The hardliner warmongering policies of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka, and John McCain have gotten us into enough trouble over the last seven years. When the mainstream republicans in the Bush administration and even Sarah Palin have accepted an approach of diplomacy first, it is curious how out of touch with his own party John McCain really is.


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"It is then followed by a realization that diplomacy, though imperfect and messy, usually works."

Shocking that it takes an administration 6 years to abandon a clearly failing hard-line approach before it tries something that has empirically worked forever. Equally shocking that McCain has stuck to his hard-line stance on diplomacy and expects to win the election.

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