The Magazine

Six Parties, Zero Progress

State pretends things are going well with North Korea.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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The State Department is engaged in heavy-duty spin to keep alive the clearly failing Six Party Talks on North Korean disarmament. But no amount of spin can hide the fact that whoever becomes president in 2009 will face a North Korean problem worse than that which Bill Clinton bequeathed to George W. Bush.

Last week, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher Hill, State's top Asia diplomat, had to explain away the fact that Pyongyang has missed its deadline for fully declaring all of its nuclear weapons programs. Even more difficult was fudging the very open question of continuing North Korean proliferation.

Just the day before, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified that the intelligence community has "moderate confidence"--intelligence speak for "we have evidence"--that North Korea has an ongoing uranium enrichment program. McConnell further assessed that Pyongyang has produced enough plutonium for up to half a dozen nuclear weapons, and has the ballistic missile capability to hit the continental United States with those weapons. In short, notwithstanding State Department spin, North Korea has nuclear weapons and the ability to use them against the United States and her allies. There is little prospect that current U.S. policy will change North Korea's nuclear status.

Then there is the subject of proliferation. U.N. Security Council resolutions, Six Party Talk agreements, and U.S. warnings are supposed to prevent Pyongyang from proliferating any weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile technology. But it seems pretty clear that when Israel struck a site in Syria in September 2007, it was because North Korea was helping ramp up a Syrian WMD program of some sort. All Hill had to say to Congress on this matter was that the State Department takes the issue of North Korean proliferation seriously--diplomatic talk meaning we're not planning to do anything about it.

The real state of play, then, is that North Korea will not fully declare, much less disable or dismantle, its nuclear weapons programs, and it has continued to proliferate. To mask this noncompliance, the State Department will talk optimistically of the next phases of diplomacy, continuing to provide North Korea with heavy fuel oil, removing it from the list of state sponsors of terror, even negotiating a peace treaty and full normalization. In short, no amount of evidence of North Korea's bad intentions will deter the Bush administration from declaring diplomatic victory.

This policy collapse on North Korea has happened at a rapid clip. It was just a year and a half ago that Bush told an audience in Singapore that we would "hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such actions" if it shared WMD technology. If Pyongyang was not helping Syria with a WMD program, then the administration should say so forthrightly to help save its faltering policy.

After North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear tests in 2006, the administration got tough, with two strong U.N. resolutions and financial sanctions that hurt Kim and his cronies directly. President Bush then decided to give the regime he loathes one last chance to come clean, after decades of lying and cheating. Assistant Secretary Hill got it exactly backwards when he told senators on February 6 that "we" have much work to do in getting Pyongyang to rid itself of its nuclear programs. The burden is on Pyongyang to come clean. "We," meaning Washington (plus Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and Moscow), must verify that they have done so and punish them if they have not.

Besides creating a more dangerous Korean peninsula, the Six Party process has caused a breach with our most important ally, Japan, which wanted to take a tougher line. What's more, China is making its own plans and arrangements to deal with an unstable and nuclear North Korea. Beijing, too, has little faith in the talks and has drawn up military plans to intervene in North Korea to protect its own interests. All parties are concerned about China's intentions, which they are keeping to themselves. If North Korea does collapse, American, Japanese, and South Korean war planners will have to consider the possibility of dealing with a unilateral Chinese intervention. China's trade with the North tripled between 2000 and 2005--with an eye toward gaining more influence over the future disposition of the peninsula.