Winston Churchill famously argued that it is better to “jaw-jaw” than to “war-war.” If that’s the general principle, a new preliminary agreement struck with North Korea by the United States and North Korea’s neighbor countries is probably a modestly hopeful sign.
But it will bear watching. Fortunately the deal is structured so that watching might actually provide some answers in a reasonable period of time. Under the agreement North Korea will have 60 days to accomplish the first steps toward disabling its nuclear weapons program and allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to North Korean sites to monitor them. In exchange, the U.S., China and South Korea will provide some $400 million worth of economic aid, mostly in the form of heavy fuel oil.
“This is a relationship where baby steps make sense on both sides,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. “But this is a good start that could lead to a fairly rapid shutdown of the North’s nuclear activities.”
Bennett believes a key aspect of the agreement is the requirement that North Korea disclose other nuclear activities besides those covered by the immediate agreement. The U.S. will be looking at the upcoming “complete declaration” to include, for example, details of North Korea’s relationship with A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapon. It is believed that North Korea received plans for centrifuges needed to manufacture weapons-grade nuclear material from Khan in the middle to late 1990s and obtained centrifuge tubes from Russia.
If all sides live up to their agreements over the next 60 days, the North Koreans want a formal end to the Korean war of the 1950s (technically it’s still active), diplomatic recognition by the United States, a lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, and more economic aid to prop up its failed command economy. The U.S. (and China, Russia, Japan and South Korea) want North Korea not only to begin to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but to dismantle it completely.
China, which does not relish the idea of a nuclear North Korea — or a collapsed regime, which would undoubtedly send a flood of refugees into China — no doubt played a significant role in prodding North Korea toward this agreement. But President Bush’s administration, which has been known to carry a rhetorical big stick, also showed it can do diplomacy.
The agreement could turn out to be a dud, but it is structured so we will know a lot more about sincerity all around in 60 days, a short period in international politics. Paint us cautiously optimistic.