Subscribe to FDD

Nuclear Fiascoes: From Diplomatic Failure With North Korea To Debacle With Iran

Nuclear Fiascoes: From Diplomatic Failure With North Korea To Debacle With Iran


31st August 2015 - Forbes

With Congress due to vote by Sept. 17 on the Iran nuclear deal, there’s a warning worth revisiting. It goes like this: The president is pushing a historic nuclear agreement, saying it will stop a terror-sponsoring tyranny from getting nuclear weapons. And up pipes the democratically elected leader of one of America’s closest allies, to say this nuclear deal is mortal folly. He warns that it is filled with concessions more likely to sustain and embolden the nuclear-weapons-seeking despotism than to disarm it.

This critic has more incentive than most to weigh the full implications of the deal, because his country is most immediately in harm’s way — though it has not been included in the nuclear talks. He notes that the nuclear negotiators have sidelined such glaring issues as human rights, and warns that Washington is naive, and the U.S. is allowing itself to be manipulated by a ruthless dictatorship.

No, the critic I’m referring to is not Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he has warned of precisely such dangers in the Iran nuclear deal. I am citing the warnings voiced 21 years ago by the then-President of South Korea, Kim Young Sam, as the Clinton administration bargained its way toward the 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea known as the Agreed Framework.

As it turned out, Kim Young Sam’s misgivings were right on target. The 1994 Agreed Framework did not stop North Korea’s pursuit of the bomb. Instead, it became a pit stop on North Korea’s road to the nuclear arsenal it is amassing today.

For all the differences between North Korea and Iran, there are parallels enough to suggest that the failed 1994 nuclear bargain with North Korea is an excellent guide to the future trajectory with Iran, if the U.S. goes ahead with the nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — announced by the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia, China and Iran on July 14 in Vienna.

Recall that in 1994, faced with the threat of North Korea producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, the U.S. sought a diplomatic solution. Taking a cue from an exploratory trip to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter, the Clinton administration wooed North Korea with an offer of lightwater nuclear reactors to be used exclusively for the peaceful production of electricity. All Pyongyang had to do was give up its nuclear bomb program.

As this agreement was taking shape, South Korea’s Kim Young Sam laid out his concerns in an hourlong interview with the New York Times. In the resulting article, dated Oct. 8, 1994, the Times reported: “After weeks of watching in silent frustration as the United States tries to negotiate a halt to North Korea’s nuclear program, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea lashed out at the Clinton administration today in an interview for what he characterized as a lack of knowledge and an overeagerness to compromise.”

The Times article described Kim’s concerns that “compromises might prolong the life of the North Korean government and would send the wrong signal to its leaders.” Kim was quoted as denouncing the deal then in the making as a “half-baked compromise” which would lead to “more danger and peril.”

President Clinton rolled right past that warning. On Oct. 21, 1994, less than two weeks after Kim’s concerns hit the headlines, the U.S. signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Clinton praised the deal as “good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world.” Promising that the Agreed Framework would reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, Clinton further lauded the deal as “a crucial step for drawing North Korea into the global community.”

South Koreans and their leaders, in the main, disagreed. But with South Korea dependent on the U.S. superpower for defense against North Korea, Kim Young Sam had little choice but to follow Clinton’s lead. Seoul damned the deal with faint praise. The Associated Press reported: “South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said that even though the deal fell short of expectations, it met South Korea’s minimum policy goals.”

History now shows that the chief policy goals served by the Agreed Framework were those of Pyongyang, which racked up a highly successful exercise in nuclear extortion, and carried on, first secretly, then overtly, with its nuclear weapons program. As South Korea’s president had predicted, the Agreed Framework helped fortify Pyongyang’s totalitarian regime, rather than transforming it.

Some of the negotiators involved in that 1994 deal have since argued that while the North Korean agreement eventually collapsed, it did at least delay Pyongyang’s progress toward nuclear weapons. What they tend to omit from that select slice of history is that the Agreed Framework helped rescue a North Korean regime which in 1994 was on the ropes. Just three years earlier, North Korea’s chief patron of decades past, the Soviet Union, had collapsed. The longtime Soviet subsidies to Pyongyang had vanished. China did not yet have the wealth to easily step in. And just three months before the nuclear deal was struck, North Korea’s founding tyrant, Kim Il Sung, died. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, faced the challenge of consolidating power during a period of famine at home and American superpower ascendancy abroad.

But in the game of nuclear chicken, it was America that blinked. In exchange for North Korea’s promise to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. agreed to lead a $4.6 billion consortium to build two lightwater reactors for North Korea, and provide shipments of free heavy fuel oil for heating and electricity production while the new reactors were being built. This was augmented by U.S. security guarantees, easing of sanctions and promises to move toward normalizing diplomatic relations, with generous food aid thrown in.

By the late 1990s, just a few years into the deal, North Korea had become the largest recipient of U.S. aid in East Asia. That did not curb Kim Jong Il’s hostile ways. The Pyongyang regime put the interests of its military and its weapons programs before the needs of its starving population. In 1998, North Korea launched a long-range missile over Japan, a test for which it was hard to discern any purpose other than developing a vehicle to carry nuclear weapons. By that time, as a number of former Clinton administration officials have since confirmed, the U.S. was seeing signs that North Korea was cheating on the nuclear deal by pursuing a secret program for uranium enrichment.

Instead of confronting North Korea, Clinton during his last two years in office tried to double down on his crumbling nuclear deal by pursuing a missile deal with Pyongyang. In 2000, that led to an exchange of high-ranking officials, in which the Clinton administration dignified North Korea with the unprecedented move of welcoming one of its top-ranking military officials, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to a 45-minute sitdown with Clinton at the White House. Clinton then dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, together with the administration’s special advisor for North Korea policy, Wendy Sherman, to Pyongyang (yes, the same Wendy Sherman recently employed by Obama as chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal). Sherman and Albright brought North Korea’s Kim Jong Il a basketball signed by star player Michael Jordan; Kim entertained them with a stadium flip-card depiction of a long-range missile launch. There was no missile deal.

North Korea continued raking in U.S. largesse until late 2002, when the Bush administration finally confronted Pyongyang over its nuclear cheating. North Korea then walked away from the 1994 deal (on which it had by then been cheating for years), withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (on which it had also been cheating) and began reprocessing plutonium from the spent fuel rods which despite the 1994 deal had never been removed from its Yongbyon nuclear complex. President Bush then made his own stab at nuclear diplomacy, via the Six-Party Talks. North Korea punctuated that process in Oct. 2006 with its first nuclear test. In 2007, the Bush administration led the way to a Six-Party denuclearization deal with North Korea, bull-dozing ahead even after it became clear that North Korea had been secretly helping Syria build a secret copy of North Korea’s plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor (destroyed in Sept. 2007 by an Israeli air strike). Once again, North Korea took the concessions, cheated on the deal and in late 2008 walked away.

Since Obama took office, North Korea has carried out its second and third nuclear tests, in 2009 and 2013; restarted its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon; and in 2010 unveiled a uranium enrichment plant, which appears to have since at least doubled in size. Having equipped itself with both uranium and plutonium pathways to the bomb, North Korea is now making nuclear weapons, and developing increasingly sophisticated missiles — including long-range — to deliver them.

In sum, both Clinton and Bush purchased the transient gains of North Korean nuclear deals at the cost of bolstering a North Korean regime that has become vastly more dangerous. When Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, North Korea’s regime managed a second transition of power, to third-generation Kim family tyrant Kim Jong Un — who was described last year by the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, as “overconfident and unpredictable.” Kim Jong Un bestrides a growing arsenal of weapons of mass murder, including chemical and biological, as well as nuclear, plus a growing cyber warfare capability. This is the legacy not least of North Korea’s skill at exploiting the feckless nuclear deals offered by U.S. presidents whose real achievements on this front were to hand off a monstrous and rising threat to the next administration.

Now comes the Iran nuclear deal, which President Obama has described as a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime “historic chance to pursue a safer and more secure world.” And from Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of America’s closest ally and Iran’s prime target in the Middle East, comes the warning that this deal is a “stunning historic mistake,” configured not to block Iran’s path to the bomb, but to pave the way.

There are surely dissertations to be written on the intricate differences between the North Korea Agreed Framework and the Iran nuclear deal now before Congress. But important and alarming similarities abound.

Like the North Korea deal, the Iran deal dignifies a despotic, murderous regime, and provides its worst elements with relief from economic distress, via a flood of rejuvenating resources. In North Korea’s case, the main help arrived in the form of aid. In oil-rich Iran’s case, it comes in the far more lucrative form of sanctions relief, including access to an estimated $55 billion or more (by some estimates, two or three times that amount) in currently frozen funds held abroad.

Like the North Korea Agreed Framework, the Iran nuclear deal pivots narrowly on nuclear issues, as if ballistic missiles, terrorism, arms smuggling, gross violations of human rights, blatant declarations of destructive intent and the malign character of the regime itself were irrelevant to the promised “exclusively peaceful” nuclear program.

Like the North Korea deal, the Iran deal comes loaded with incentives for the U.S. administration to protect its own diplomatic claims of success by ignoring signs of cheating. Monitoring of nuclear facilities is shunted to the secretive International Atomic Energy Agency, which has no power of enforcement, and will have to haggle with Iran for access to suspect sites.

Like Clinton with North Korea, Obama chose to frame the Iran deal not as a treaty, but as an executive agreement, performing an end-run around vigorous dissent within Congress by submitting the deal pronto for approval by the United Nations Security Council. In the North Korean case, the Security Council gave its unanimous blessing in the form of a presidential statement. In the Iran case, the Obama administration drafted a resolution which the Security Council unanimously approved. Having hustled the deal directly to the U.N., despite legislation meant to ensure Congress a voice, Obama administration officials are now pressuring Congress to defer to the U.N.

To be sure, there are two highly significant difference between the 1994 North Korea deal and the 2015 Iran deal. Iran, with its oil wealth, location in the heart of the Middle East, messianic Islamic theocracy and global terror networks, is even more dangerous to the world than North Korea. And, bad as the North Korea deal was, the Iran deal is much worse. Along with its secret side agreements and its promises to lift the arms embargo on Iran in five years and the missile embargo in eight, this deal lets Iran preserve its large illicitly built nuclear infrastructure and carry on enriching uranium, subject to constraints that will be problematic to enforce, and are themselves limited by sunset clauses that even North Korea never managed to obtain at the bargaining table.

When Israel’s Netanyahu spoke this past March to a joint meeting of Congress, warning that the Iran nuclear deal would lead to “a much more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare,” Obama dismissed that speech as “nothing new.” That’s true, in the sense that we have heard similar warnings before. What’s new, if this Iran deal goes through, is that we are about to see the mistakes made with North Korea amplified on a scale that augurs not security in the 21st century, but a soaring risk of nuclear war.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter @CRosett

Tags

iran, north-korea, nuclear-deal, un