North Korea: An 'Evil' Bush Can Bargain With?

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A million people packed into Pyongyang's main plaza, the Kim Il Sung Square to support North Korea's withdrawal from the global nuclear treaty

President Bush is "sick and tired of games and deceptions" where Iraq is concerned, but North Korea appears to be quite a different matter. Tuesday, even as the President threatened a war to disarm Iraq, he offered an olive branch to its fellow "Axis of Evil" state North Korea — unlike Iraq, a proven and proud offender in both the nuclear and the proliferation field. The president affirmed that the U.S. was offering North Korea food and energy aid if it agrees to stop its nuclear program, an approach he labeled a "bold initiative." But to Korea watchers, the offer had more than a passing resemblance to the Clinton Administration's approach, long-pilloried by Team Bush.

As a carrot to resolve the North Korea crisis, Washington has offered a resumption of food and energy aid, as well as some form of written guarantee that the U.S. will respect the country's sovereignty and security. The North Korean response was decidedly snotty (it described President Bush's offer as a "deceptive drama to mislead world opinion") but analysts interpret the remarks as typically shrill North Korean bargaining. Pyongyang will try and hold out for a formal non-aggression pact, while the Bush Administration will likely offer some lesser form of written security guarantee. But the nuclear brinkmanship appears designed primarily as a negotiating tactic to pressure the U.S. and its allies into new concessions.

The shape of the deal emerging as South Korea takes the leading role in talking to Pyongyang involves a return to the fundamentals of the 1994 Clinton agreement — the North Koreans agree to refrain from developing nuclear weapons and are offered food and energy aid as part of a process aimed at "full normalization of political and economic relations." The reason South Korea is trying to revive that deal is that it broke down at both ends: The North Koreans sought new ways of producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel via centrifuges, and trashed the spirit of rapprochement by test-firing missiles over Japan; but the U.S. and its allies also failed to deliver on the promised energy assistance. Now, North Korean brinkmanship has put both sides have found themselves back on the path to a confrontation neither can afford, which has forced them to revisit their agreement.

President Bush's new stance is something of a vindication for Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been embarrassed two years ago when the President put the kibosh on Powell's suggestion that the Bush Administration would build on the agreements crafted in the Clinton era. Instead, Bush had warned shortly after taking office that North Korea could not be trusted to keep its agreements — and that, of course, has been proved true. But U.S. allies have strenuously warned Washington against piling new pressure on North Korea, which may well be the only regime left willing to raise the stakes on the world's only superpower. And that has left the White House little choice but to seek to improve on the Clinton agreement in negotiations with North Korea. While a variety of proposals are under consideration, the Bush team will certainly seek to greatly expand the verification mechanisms of any new agreement, and will want to extend it to North Korea's missile exports. They'll also want the Yongbon nuclear facility that North Korea recently reopened dismantled, rather than simply frozen — the 1994 agreement includes this step only after the delivery to North Korea of two light-water nuclear reactors by U.S. allies, but Bush Administration officials are hoping to convince the North Koreans to settle for oil-burning plants.

Still, the overall thrust appears to be improving on the 1994 deal struck by the Clinton Administration, which is precisely what Powell had advocated. And the fact that the Administration now finds itself having to convince Americans of the need to go to war over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, while engaging in negotiations over North Korea's goes to the heart of why State Department officials dealing with Asia had been so alarmed by the president's "Axis of Evil" speech. There are plenty of good reasons for treating Iraq and North Korea as unique and entirely separate issues, but the link between them was established by the Bush Administration's own rhetoric.