The welcome nuclear framework agreement with North Korea signed in Beijing yesterday is a belated triumph of pragmatism over ideology, and suggests a way ahead on a deal with Iran.
The preliminary deal provides an outline for a more detailed agreement to be negotiated between North Korea and the other five parties – the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan — to the still precarious nuclear talks. The main elements of the deal are essentially the same as the agreement nearly concluded at the end of the second Clinton term, and gift wrapped for the first Bush administration.
President Bush and his most influential advisors spent the next five years denigrating that deal, and dissing Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, who favored it. The basic concept, “more for more,” combined greater concessions from the North (verified abandonment of its nuclear weapons and program) in exchange for broader security guarantees and economic ties and assistance from the United States and others, including a no-attack pledge from Washington and an affirmation of South Korea’s non-nuclear status.
It has taken a combination of the grind of war in Iraq and the devastation of Katrina, plus a Secretary of State who knows how to play the inside game, finally to turn this around. The major changes in the US position commit Washington to nothing. The agreement includes but does not endorse Pyongyang’s stance on its nuclear rights: “The DPRK stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” It also makes an open ended statement about the possibility of future talks on suspended plans to build a proliferation-resistant reactor for the North: “The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor [sic] to the DPRK.”
Despite the vague nature of these commitments, they were a bitter pill for the Bush administration, which has opposed the very idea of negotiations with the North, or with Iran. The administration’s motto has been: better to ignore bad behavior than risk being perceived as rewarding it. The ignorance-is-bliss policy rests on the false premise that regime change was in the offing in both North Korea and Iran. Both of these regimes, however, have turned out to be durable. The cost of waiting Kim Jong-Il out has been as many as a half dozen more nuclear weapons which, hopefully, now will be dismantled. Time is also the enemy in Iran, where bureaucratic momentum continues to build for a nuclear program supported by “hardliners” and “reformers” alike.
The hope now is that the administration’s low-cost concessions to North Korea will be applied to Iran to stanch its nuclear program. Now, however, the administration and the EU 3 will have to deal with a new Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is tilting Iran’s policy to the east, and seems less willing to compromise to gain favor with Europe or the United States.
Lee Feinstein is senior fellow and deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. An international lawyer and specialist in national security affairs, he was Principal Director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a senior advisor for peacekeeping policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Feinstein’s areas of specialization include weapons of mass destruction, international law and institutions, and foreign policy process. He has written widely on US foreign policy and national security and co-directed the CFR-Freedom House Task Force on Enhancing US Relations with the UN.