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Blog note: North Korean sanctions

June 26, 2008

Bush just lifted sanctions on North Korea. Some conservatives claim that Democrats will now need to eat crow about his foreign policies. Some also claim that the North Korean policy shouldn’t be extrapolated to Iran, because Kim Jong Il is “rational” and “wants to survive” (unlike those nutty Iranians).

1) This is a triumph for the Bush Administration–and for Georgetown’s own Victor Cha–but Democrats don’t have to eat any crow; Bush succeeded by adopting the policy we’d urged all along. Of course, if he’d done it sooner, we might not have had a nuclear-armed North Korea, but that takes us into difficult counterfactual domain–and is even a bit unfair, because it doesn’t seem likely that North Korea had any working nuclear weapons.

Now, conservative bloggers, pundits, and politicians have long spun this as some sort of vindication of the Bush policy; they think that the Clinton administration appeased North Korea but that the Bush administration showed the necessary strength to “force” the North Koreans into negotiations. But this betrays a complete misunderstanding of the relevant history. Far from “appeasing” North Korea, the US was on the brink of bombing North Korea before they signed onto the Agreed Framework.

In 2002, the Bush administration confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they were enriching Uranium. We then went through years of a very similar pattern of threats and counter-threats. Then the Bush administration decided, in a policy reversal, that it was time to engage:

He [Victor Cha] arrived at the White House with a reputation as an advocate for a tough approach to negotiations with North Korea — what he called “hawk engagement” — but in the end he drafted the crucial memo that helped persuade President Bush earlier this year to allow U.S. negotiators to meet for bilateral talks with their North Korean counterparts in Berlin [emph. added].

The approach all but shattered the taboo on substantive bilateral negotiations that Bush had imposed since the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions erupted nearly five years ago. North Korea requested the meeting after refusing substantive talks at six-nation negotiations in December. (Pyongyang proposed Geneva as a venue, but that is where a Clinton-era agreement scorned by Bush was negotiated, so Berlin was chosen.)

Cha caught Bush’s eye by arguing in his memo that it is time to test North Korea’s intentions — seeking an agreement with specific actions and a limited time frame. North Korea ultimately agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor in 60 days if the United States ended a banking inquiry, but North Korea has now missed the deadline by more than two weeks.

2) The attempt to draw a distinction with Iran isn’t ludicrous–but the attempt to draw a distinction along these particular lines certainly is.

3) Both previous points beg for someone to search through just what, exactly, such people and their fellow travelers were saying about offering similar concessions to North Korea when the Bush administration opposed doing so (or just to search for commentary on Kerry’s proposal to engage in bilateral talks, for that matter), and what they were saying about Kim Jong Il’s “rationality” when he was part of the axis of evil. Literally:

Abe wants to put pressure on Beijing with this announcement, not Pyongyang. Kim is too irrational to care about Tokyo [emph. added]; he has his eyes fixed on Washington. Hu Jintao operates on a more rational basis, however, and he will have a choice between propping up the North Korean nutcase or losing trillions of dollars to an arms race on which he had not counted. Japan wants Jintao to understand just how expensive Kim Jong-Il will become in the next few months and years unless Beijing puts a leash on their boy.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.