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Dead End: The North Korean Crisis

Then came the crisis that began in late 2002. In October of that year, American envoy James Kelly, while in Pyongyang, accused the North Koreans of carrying on a secret nuclear arms program based on uranium. To his surprise, the North Koreans boasted that they were doing so.

Kelly’s confrontation with Pyongyang started an unanticipated -- and terrifying -- downward spiral in relations. The United States in December stopped shipments of heavy fuel oil required by the Agreed Framework, and Pyongyang immediately ejected international weapons inspectors, announced the following January another withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, fired up the Yongbyon reactor shortly thereafter, resumed construction on two other reactors, and removed eight thousand fuel rods from Yongbyon’s cooling pond for the purposes of reprocessing.

This led to a series of consultations and negotiations that resulted in three-party talks followed by six-party talks. The six-party talks, in turn, produced what was described as a “breakthrough.” All six parties to these deliberations issued a statement of principles in September 2005. North Korea at that time committed itself to giving up “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The crisis this month represents the unwinding of the September 2005 deal and subsequent agreements. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, trying to downplay concerns, said of this week’s events, “We’ve been through ups and downs in this process before.”

Yes, we have. And by now Ms. Rice should be discerning a pattern to Pyongyang’s behavior.  North Korea always creates a crisis when it can no longer cooperate with the international community. In 1993, it had to turn its back on the world’s nonproliferation regime by withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because it did not want to submit to the “special inspections.”  It boasted about its uranium program in 2002 to kill the Agreed Framework. It had to do so at that moment because, under the terms of the deal, the North was then required to submit to IAEA inspections. This month, it busted the September 2005 deal because it could no longer evade the issue of verification of its promises. In other words, the North once again refused to submit to inspections.

So there is a recurring historical cycle evident during the last 15 years. That means we can be reasonably sure that, at this time, North Korea is not negotiating for better terms. It is wrecking the six-party process simply because it can no longer adhere to its obligations. Short of military force or other extreme coercive measures, Pyongyang cannot be persuaded to disarm. Despite what Ms. Rice says, this is not just another “down” in the talks. It is the end.