In his Iraq policy, George W. Bush has often been likened to Lyndon Johnson, who embarked on a costly war that he didn’t know how to win or end. But the agreement American negotiators have forged with North Korea brings to mind a happier precedent: Richard Nixon’s opening to China, a surprising breakthrough that belied his hard-line record and shrewdly advanced American interests in a vital part of the world.
The North Korean nuclear deal has gotten more criticism than praise, because it is widely seen as too little, too late. Too little by conservatives who think Bush did the equivalent of buying Florida swampland on the Internet. Too late by liberals who say we could have gotten this agreement five years — and several North Korean nuclear weapons — ago.
But it’s conceivable that both are wrong. It may be that a) the agreement really will freeze or eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, and that b) it came about only because the administration took such an uncompromising line until the North Koreans were ready to retreat.
If the deal works, it will go far to redeem Bush’s foreign policy — which until now looked as though it would leave all three countries in the axis of evil more dangerous than they were before. To persuade a rogue regime that has built its own atomic arsenal to give them up would be unprecedented. And that accomplishment might be less important than a secondary effect: preventing Kim Jong Il from selling nukes to other countries or, worse, to terrorist groups.
That scenario, of course, is the congenial one, not the likely one. Negotiating with the North Korean regime often seems like trying to tackle a greased pig: You never quite accomplish your purpose, and the pig never gets tired. If the last nuclear agreement had worked as intended, after all, we wouldn’t need this one.
Under the 1994 accord, reached by the Clinton administration, North Korea was supposed to suspend its weapons program — in exchange for a light water reactor, supplies of fuel oil and eventual normalization of relations. But they cheated by pursuing a secret uranium enrichment effort. And when the Bush administration called them on it, they evicted international inspectors, resumed the production of weapons material and, last year, detonated a nuclear weapon.
That test forced the administration to reconsider its approach, which was to give nothing and expect everything. The advantage it had was that this time, the talks included South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. The latter, Pyongyang’s chief patron and ally, was not pleased with the nuclear test and used its leverage to force a deal.
Are the North Koreans serious this time? No one knows, but it won’t take much time or money to find out. We agreed to ship them a million tons of heavy fuel oil — but only 5 percent of it will go out in the next 60 days, by which time they will have to shut down their chief nuclear facility and admit international inspectors.
If they balk, the game will be up. If not, they will have to proceed with steps to dismantle the plant, disclose all their nuclear activities and ultimately surrender their bombs. Any rewards they get will require them to meet their obligations, step by step.
Denuclearizing the North is an ambitious, difficult goal, and the administration deserves credit for making every effort to attain it. But all Bush got in some quarters was to be pilloried. His former UN ambassador, John Bolton, denounced the accord as “a charade” providing only “the illusion of security.” On the left, The New York Times asked, “What took so long? . . . Mr. Bush could probably have gotten this deal years ago.”
But Bush didn’t suddenly lose his mind or his backbone, as some conservatives imagine. More likely, he saw that regime change was not going to solve the problem. And it is far too early to assume, as liberal critics do, that the North Koreans would have been happy to cooperate in 2002 or 2003. A lot of things have happened since then that could have tilted them in favor of striking a deal.
The president can take comfort that Ronald Reagan was once scorned by liberals for putting missiles in Europe and by conservatives for making a deal to eliminate them. Reagan could have told Bush that if this accord fulfills its purpose, everyone will forget the criticism, including the critics.