[Overseas view]Reasons for cautionPresident George Bush announced on June 25 that the United States would lift sanctions on North Korea related to the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act and the list of state sponsors of terrorism in response to North Korea’s disablement of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and provision of a verifiable declaration of the plutonium produced there.
Critics argue that this was a bad deal because the North Koreans refused to provide any declaration or disablement on the full nuclear program, including weapons and uranium enrichment, as originally agreed in the September 2005 and February 2007 six-party joint statements, and because proliferation to Syria was not covered. Supporters argue that this represents an important step forward because it will be the first actual disablement of North Korean nuclear facilities and because the Yongbyon reactor is the main source of new plutonium for North Korean weapons.
Both the critics and the supporters are correct. Who is more correct will depend on how the United States and the Republic of Korea spend the time between now and Aug. 10.
Those following the North Korea negotiations will have noticed different faces and a different tone with the announcement of sanctions-lifting at the end of June.
Where Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was ubiquitous in the media up to that point and the tone was generally enthusiastic about diplomatic progress, the most recent press announcements were handled almost entirely by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Bush and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.
The White House strictly controlled the message to ensure that there was no irrational exuberance or false celebration and that the tone remained sober and skeptical. Secretary Rice previewed the sanctions-lifting in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in the third week of June. Originally, her speech was expected to be more enthusiastic about the completion of phase two with North Korea and to announce the establishment of a new Northeast Asian forum for peace and security.
But her staff pulled back on the Northeast Asia forum theme and emphasized issues that sounded more like the first Bush term: human rights, verification and allies.
The sober tone, the senior-level message control, and the emphasis on verification all reflected the Bush administration’s recognition that the nuclear deal was losing support among key constituencies. In the lead-up to the sanctions-lifting, conservatives were deeply unhappy with the multiple concessions made to North Korea and particularly the de-emphasis on human rights.
The Japanese government chose not to oppose the sanctions-lifting openly, but registered strong protest at the missing elements in the deal and the failure to make progress on the abductee issue before sanctions were lifted, a commitment the U.S. had made in 2003.
The Japanese government also raised major objections to State Department plans to announce a Northeast Asian forum; an idea Tokyo supports but worried would send the wrong signal to North Korea at this stage. The ROK government also used the trilateral meetings in June to signal concerns about gaps in the agreement and to push for effective verification.
Finally, both Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama raised questions about the deal and emphasized the need for a full and complete declaration and effective verification.
The Bush administration also had to worry about the mounting evidence of North Korean misbehavior and intransigence, even in the midst of progress on Yongbyon. The 19,000 pages of operating documents from Yongbyon were reportedly covered with traces of highly enriched uranium ? the second time in the past year that North Korean nuclear officials had turned over items to the U.S. government that happened to be so contaminated.
This only redoubled attention to the HEU program, which is not covered in the declaration and continues to be active, according to public testimony by the most senior U.S. intelligence officials. Additional details about North Korean cooperation with Syria on the construction of a nuclear facility also continued raising doubts about sanctions-lifting among officials, experts and members of Congress.
Moreover, reports have come out that the 19,000 pages of operating records on Yongbyon have major gaps with respect to plutonium production that must be filled in by North Korea.
President Bush was never eager to lift sanctions on North Korea, but calculated that the sanctions-lifting was the right move for now. Given his own inherent skepticism about North Korea and the clear warnings he was hearing, he took key steps to make certain that sanctions-lifting would not be viewed as the next in a series of concessions to North Korea.
These steps went beyond the more careful and sober tone of the last few weeks. On the same day he announced he was ending the Trading with the Enemy Act sanctions in place since the Korean War; he also signed two executive orders leaving in place a freeze on North Korean assets in the U.S. and retaining controls on cash flows to the North. In addition, he only notified Congress of his intention to lift sanctions related to terrorism in 45 days, as required by law, and he said that he would not ultimately lift those sanctions if North Korea fails to put in place the procedures necessary to verify their declaration. Finally, he took steps to reassure a nervous Japan, including a phone call to Prime Minister Fukuda and a press conference for the Japanese media in Washington.
U.S. diplomacy up to this point would have faced much less criticism had these kinds of signals been sent over the past year. Now it is critical for the president to stick with this new tone. The verification steps required will likely include the taking of samples, inspections and interviews with nuclear officials. There is a general agreement among the U.S., Korea and Japan on these points, but only the broadest understanding with China and even less with Pyongyang. Some in the U.S. government will be tempted to lift sanctions in exchange for some broad agreement with Pyongyang on the principles of verification, but it is critical to ensure that the verification procedures are credibly in place before sanctions are lifted.
If they are not, then the terrorism sanctions should remain in place until the verification is credible, as the president stated. There have been enough compromises already and giving up on verification at this point will only convince Pyongyang that the other parties are not serious about keeping the pressure for real denuclearization and the most difficult parts are yet to come.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green