In February 2007 the U. S. joined five other major nations in announcing an important diplomatic achievement under which North Korea pledged to dismantle key components of its widely feared and condemned nuclear weapons system in return for certain significant benefits. The respected Wall Street Journal cautiously labeled it at the time as "faith-based nonproliferation." There are some very positive aspects to this agreement, but there are certainly many grounds for Americans also to have significant concerns.
There were some obvious similarities between North Korea and Iraq before our invasion. Both were brutal military dictatorships ruled by despots with big egos who enjoyed spending tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars on themselves and their families when the majority of their large civilian populations were struggling to feed themselves and stay alive. Both were considered by President Bush to be part of his so-called "Axis of Evil" together with Iran. Both were alleged to be sponsoring terrorism and both were believed to be developing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is in an uncertain transformation, but Kim Jong Il is very much still around continuing his brutality and mischief, whenever he can get away with it.
The Bush Administration could therefore have also chosen to bomb or invade North Korea to eliminate the nuclear threat, and force regime change while they were at it, and this would have probably pleased Vice President Cheney and many supporters on the right. However, fortunately, having learned some lessons from the Iraqi experience and public opinion polls, the Administration wisely decided that regionally supported diplomacy was the much more prudent course, with participation by Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea. China's inclusion was the key, given their proximity, great power, and substantial influence over North Korea. This was definitely one of the most positive aspects of the agreement, with several favorable dimensions.
Why are there many grounds for concerns from our perspective? Some are fairly obvious and others may not be. One obvious, much talked about ground is that it's not at all clear that Kim Jong Il can be trusted to live up to any material agreement. Another related ground is that verification of effective and sustained dismantling of their nuclear weapons system can be very difficult in a country like North Korea. This includes what's going to happen with their stockpile of plutonium, their clandestine uranium program, and continuing sharing of nuclear technology and related equipment with unfriendly countries like Syria and Iran.
There are several stages to this agreement and additional negotiations to come. One less obvious concern is that it will be difficult to get adequate agreement among the U. S.' partners in this pact, especially China and Russia, when it comes down to the more sensitive points on verification steps. It also concerns me that the Administration, no doubt very eager to achieve a successful final diplomatic result to support President Bush's presidential legacy, will compromise more than it should in upcoming negotiations. For a similar reason I'm concerned that the U. S. will end up providing much more than its fair share of the agreed benefits to North Korea in terms of aid in building needed infrastructure facilities, such as power plants to generate electricity, and delivery of fuel oil supplies. I'm particularly thinking of China, Japan and South Korea contributing fair shares. China, after all, has ample liquidity resources from huge trade surpluses and stands to benefit from a stable and better developed neighbor, given all the refugees who have fled across the border to China in recent decades. Japan and South Korea have more to fear from North Korea's weapons systems than the U. S., given their much closer locations.
Finally, we should all be concerned about the important precedent that this pact sets, something we can be certain that Iran and Syria, in addition to Kim Jong Il, are paying close attention to. Those concerns noted, I very much hope the upcoming negotiations and the critical follow-up and monitoring actions work out to the complete satisfaction of U. S. interests and those of our partners in the region. We'll have to be patient, since the final grade on this pact won't be determinable for many years.