By: Gen. Robert Gard
An editorial in The Washington Post’s 13 March 2012 edition ridicules the Obama administration for offering 240 metric tons of nutritional assistance to North Korea’s undernourished and hungry population. In return, as part of an announcement on 29 February, Pyongyang agreed to suspend nuclear and missile testing, freeze enrichment of uranium and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to return to the Yongbyong nuclear complex.
If the Washington Post had its way, the United States would refuse to negotiate with the North Korean government, leaving problems to fester and threats to peace in the region to grow.
The Post article states that the administration has fallen victim to the North Korean tactic of offering concessions on its nuclear and missile programs to obtain economic benefits, only to withdraw the concessions after receiving the aid; and it argues that North Korea will be able to point to “big short term gains” Pyongyang will have obtained for its celebration on 15 April of the centennial of the birth of its founding father, Kim Il-sung.
It should be noted that the United States has stated frequently that it does not use food as a weapon and does not demand unrelated political concessions for providing humanitarian assistance to those in need. From that perspective, the concessions from North Korea in return for food aid are a bonus, even if they prove once again to be only temporary. Unfortunately for the hungry in North Korea, however, the offer of food was part of a package that included North Korea’s concessions on its nuclear program. North Korean officials recently announced the intent to place a satellite in orbit as part of its upcoming celebration, by launching it on or near 15 April with a long-range “rocket” that could be adapted to produce a long-range missile. This announcement already has been condemned as a violation of its commitment to suspend missile tests.
The editorial also asserts that the Obama administration “effectively ratified the next generation of one of the world’s worst tyrannies” and sanctioned “the continued oppression of 24 million people” by repeating the previous administration’s position that the United States has “no hostile intention” toward North Korea. The declaration simply repeats the obvious fact that it is not in the interest of the U.S. or our South Korean ally to start a war with North Korea, especially since it has literally hundreds of long-range artillery pieces that can destroy Seoul and inflict massive casualties on its large population.
What the editorial did not include is admission of the failure of the United States to meet important commitments during past negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. If those instances did not cause North Korea to renege on its commitments or to withdraw from negotiations, they certainly provided it a justifiable pretext to do so. The following illustrative example is almost never mentioned in press accounts of the suspension of negotiations.
During the first term of the previous administration, the U.S. insisted on the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of the North Korean nuclear program as an unrealistic precondition to engaging in negotiations. Finally, in September 2005, the fourth round of the Six Party talks produced a milestone Statement of Principles that included sensible provisions including “Coordinated steps … in a phased manner in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.” As part of the agreement, the U.S. affirmed that it had no intention of attacking or invading North Korea and that it would respect its sovereignty. Almost simultaneously, the U.S. froze about $25 million in North Korean funds deposited in a bank in Macao. Regarding this as an attack on its sovereignty, North Korea suspended its participation in round five of the Six Party talks.
Some twenty months later, with North Korea’s first nuclear explosive test having occurred in the interim, the U.S. finally released the funds. Negotiations then proceeded smoothly through phase one, and agreement was reached on phase two. North Korea provided extensive documentation of its nuclear programs, per the agreement. Although there were no provisions in phase two for verification, the U.S. demanded immediate conclusion of arrangements to verify the declarations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the U.S. was moving the goal posts by unilaterally advancing provisions for verification measures as a condition for fulfilling its phase two commitments to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and relax sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, hardly major concessions.
Relationships progressively deteriorated as the U.S. vacillated; and in April 2009, North Korea attempted a reputed launch of a satellite by a long-range “rocket,” formally withdrew from the Six Party talks and ejected IAEA and U.S. monitors, bringing to a close the most promising negotiations to date. The following month, on 25 May 2009, North Korea conducted its second nuclear explosive test.
Apparently, the editorial board of The Washington Post prefers that the United States abstain from further efforts to reach an agreement with North Korea because of past failures. Is there another option? “Watchful waiting” abandons the possibility of achieving through diplomacy an outcome favorable to both sides that hopefully might lead, eventually, to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.