Should the US or China Stop North Korea?

I was pleased to see a New York Times op-ed by Joel Wit on North Korea.  Sometimes he is the PBS News Hour expert, but this time, PBS turned to some other other experts.  I worked with Joel Wit off and on for several years.  In my previous blog about the North Korean nuclear test, I complained that the US government would not fund its obligations under the Korean Peninsula Development Organization (KEDO).  As I result, as the embassy science officer in Rome I had to ask the Italy and the EU if they would provide the funds that the US Congress would not.  If the US did not fund its obligations, it gave North Korea a perfect excuse to withdraw from KEDO and resume its nuclear weapons program.  Joel was back in Washington, and was at the other end of these instruction cables to ask the Europeans for money.

It was not Joel’s fault that the US Congress would not appropriate the money for KEDO.  He was left scrambling to find the money.  I think I heard him say at least once that the US had never defaulted on its obligations.  Apparently he and his associates found the money after I retired, since KEDO continued on for years, but even if they did, it was an indication of bad faith on America’s part.

In his op-ed, Joel says that the US cannot count on China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program; only the US can.  To do this the US will have to escalate sanctions and keep the door open for negotiations.  He thinks that there may be something that North Korea wants enough to resume talks.

I am not optimistic.  Looking at the past history, North Korea swings back and forth so much it’s hard to tell if they are serious about any negotiations.  They have actually entered into agreements that actually restricted their activities like any normal country that was giving up a military nuclear program.  But then they suddenly change their mind and withdraw.  Nevertheless, it’s better to try to rein in the program than just let them do anything they want.

After KEDO, six-party talks produced various attempts at agreements to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but they all failed in the end.  Off and on the North Koreans agree to certain restrictions on their programs, which they ultimately renounced.

The Arms Control Association website provides a timeline.  North Korea first undertook to restrain its nuclear program in 1985, when it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but it did not implement the safeguards agreement required by the NPT.  In 1992 it finally signed a safeguards agreement under the NPT with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Agreement on KEDO is reached in 1994, under which the US, South Korea and Japan promise two commercial light water reactors in return for North Korea’s dismantling of its plutonium production reactors.  In 1996 talks the US suggested that North Korea joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which I played a role in creating.  (North Korea did not join.)  In 1998 Japan suspended its participation in KEDO.  In 1999 KEDO signed a contract to build the two power reactors.  In August 2002 KEDO poured the first concrete for the power reactor construction.  During an American visit in October 2002, North Korea admitted that had a clandestine nuclear enrichment program in violation of its agreements.  In November 2002 KEDO announced that it was suspending its delivery of heavy fuel oil under the agreement.  The US provided funding in 2003 to wind down the organization, which announced that it was suspending reactor construction.  In 2006 the KEDO board announced the formal termination of its power reactor construction project.

KEDO was succeeded by another agreement based on a 2005 joint statement at six-party talks including North Korea, the US, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.  In November 2007 a US team travelled to North Korea to begin disablement of Yongbyon nuclear facilities under an October agreement reached in the six-arty talks.  During 2008 Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill meets with North Koreas on compliance with the agreement.  By December 2008 the US has delivered 550,000 tons of heavy fuel oil under the agreement.  In April 2009, North Korea says it will no longer be bound by the six-party talks agreement and ejects IAEA and US monitors.  In May North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.

In December 2011 Kim Jong Il dies and is replaced by Kim Jong Un.  In December 2012, North Korea successfully launches a satellite.  In February 2013, North Korea conducts another underground nuclear test.  In January 2016, North Korea announces a fourth nuclear test.  It conducted its fifth nuclear test on September 9, 2016.

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North Korea and the MTCR

North Korea’s test of a nuclear device has prompted discussion of its missile program.  When I was at the State Department, I spent years working on the creation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  I am disappointed that I have not seen it mentioned in connection with North Korea’s development of missiles.  Before the North Korean test, the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” published several articles dealing with missile proliferation and the MTCR: “Missile proliferation: Treat the disease,” and “Too late for missile proliferation?” as well as several other articles that were part of a debate about how to deal with missile proliferation.

The MTCR is basically an export control agreement for nations capable of supplying missile hardware and technology.  By joining the MTCR they agree not to supply items or knowledge to proliferating countries that could be used to build nuclear capable missiles.  It is not an arms control agreement that prohibits the proliferation of missile technology.  It is more like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As proliferating countries become more capable of producing missiles on their own, the export restrictions of the MTCR have less effect.  The MTCR probably did slow down North Korea’s development of missiles, but now it is less effective.  However, building missiles is “rocket science,” and there are some very difficult technologies involved.  Therefore, the MTCR may still play a role in limiting or slowing down the ability of North Korea to build more powerful and more accurate missiles, but at this point, slowing down is about the best it could do.  Press articles seem to agree that North Korea could build strategic nuclear missiles that could reach the US by 2020, e.g. a New York Times article says, “Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead.”  However, the MTCR might still help restrict the accuracy and the size of the warhead for such a missile by 2020.  It might mean that North Korea could be able to hit somewhere in the greater Washington metropolitan area with a bomb the size of the one the US used on Hiroshima, rather than one that could reliably hit Pennsylvania Avenue and destroy both the White House and the Capitol, as well as most of the city.  Neither of these outcomes is acceptable, but the greater the chances that a missile might misfire, go off course or fail to detonate, the better.

Of course it would be better to have in place a strong treaty that prohibits missile proliferation like the NPT does for bombs, but that is unlikely.  One reason the MTCR is so weak is that it is all that even the friendliest countries, like the UK, France, or Japan, would agree to.  Furthermore the NPT has not been successful in limiting nuclear proliferation by the most threatening countries, such as North Korea.  As in most areas of life, laws constrain decent people, but criminals commit crimes despite the laws against it.

One advantage of the NPT is that it has its own police force, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has performed its job well in a number of cases, discovering and reporting prohibited activities by member parties.  However, the IAEA has no authority in countries that are not parties to the NPT, which includes most of the worrisome countries, such as North Korea.  There are countries that have joined the NPT, but then have gotten off the track, perhaps after a change of government.  This happened in Iran.  The IAEA has worked successfully in Iran and is a key component of the US-Iran deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

North Korean Nuclear Test

North Korea’s nuclear test reminds me of my last days in the Foreign Service around 1996-97.  I was the American Embassy’s science officer in Rome, working on nuclear non-proliferation issues, as well as a number of other matters, such as the environment.

At that time, Italy held the rotating presidency of the European Union, so that I dealt with the Italian government both on bilateral issues and on issues for the whole European Union.  The first agreement intended to rein in North Korean nuclear proliferation was in effect, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, under which the US, Japan and South Korea were to provide North Korea with certain things in return for North Korean nuclear restraint.  In the short term we were to provide North Korea with fuel oil to keep its conventional electric power plants running, and in the future with nuclear electric power plants that did not use or produce materials that could be used in a bomb.

I don’t remember all the details, but the US was obligated to pay several million dollars for the fuel oil to be supplied to North Korea.  The US Congress refused to appropriate those funds, which meant that we could not meet our obligation under the KEDO agreement.  It became my job to go to the Italians and the EU and ask them to provide funding for the fuel oil that the US Congress would provide.

I found this very unpleasant, although the Italians were very polite and listened patiently.  I thought that the US should meet its obligations under the agreement, and not provide North Korea with an excuse, US noncompliance, to renounce the agreement and resume its nuclear bomb program.  This was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I retired from the Foreign Service and returned to the US.

In addition to the KEDO fiasco, a number of other things had gone badly for the issues for which I was responsible.  Almost the day after I arrived, the State Department was sued by four environmental groups for failing to force Italy to implement UN resolutions regarding the use of driftnets to catch swordfish in the Mediterranean.  As I recall the groups were the legal arms of Greenpeace, the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, and one or two other groups.  The State Department lost the case, and in effect a Federal judge assumed control of US policy regarding Italian use of driftnets.  What would happen if some policy issue arose was that the judge would consult the environmental groups, and they would consult with a Greenpeace activist, who was really the only person on the spot.  He would visit fishing boats, inspect their nets and their catch and report back to his colleagues in the US, who would report back to the judge, who in turn would approve (or not) whatever policy proposal was on the table.  This meant that in effect my office worked for the Greenpeace representative on this issue.  One of my last acts was to accompany the Ambassador to meet with the Italian Agriculture Minister on this issue because Sicilian fishermen had hired Mafia hit men to kill fisheries enforcement personnel if they harassed the fishermen.  Supporters of the fishermen were also blocking streets in downtown Rome.  The main message I had for Ambassador was that he could not agree definitively to any proposal from the Minister, because it would have to be approved by the Federal judge back in the US.  The Ambassador was not happy about that.

In addition, the Space Shuttle had flown an Italian tethered satellite, the TSS-1R, which was to be extended on the tether about 20 km from the Shuttle and reeled back in.  The tether broke and the satellite drifted off into space.  The crew of the Columbia’s STS-75 mission came to Italy to meet with the Italians about the mission.  Unfortunately, because of the loss of the satellite, the visit became something of an apology tour, which I was responsible for organizing.

Another somewhat unfortunate, space-related incident occurred at a cocktail party given to celebrate the launch by the US of an Italian telecommunications satellite.  At the party, I met a man who worked for the telecommunications company whose satellite was being launched.  He said something like, “You Americans must really hate me, since you won’t let my daughter go to Disney World.”  I was taken aback.  He said his daughter had applied for a visa to go to Disney World, but the Embassy had refused to give her one because her father worked for the telecommunications company.  Apparently the company had some tenuous connection with Cuba, and the Helms-Burton Act prohibited us from issuing visas to employees or their families.  I went to see the Consul General, who is in charge of visas, the next day.  She told me that what he said was correct and there was nothing she could do about it.  At some point, I had read Herman Wouk’s Winds of War books.  In them, the heroine, a Jewish mother, wants to leave Italy to go to Israel.  She is told that she can go, but her child cannot; they will not give the child a visa.  It seemed too similar.  It was Rome; it was a child’s visa.  Why should the US punish children for the sins of their parents?  Even the Bible Old Testament says, “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

There were probably some other things that led to my retirement, but a diplomat is to some extent a salesman for his country.  As an Army Vietnam veteran, the son of a veteran of World War II and Korea, the grandson of a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, and the great-grandson of a veteran of the Civil War, I loved my country, but I felt that it was not living up to its reputation and was not upholding its honor.  I was old enough and had served long enough to retire; so, I did.  I didn’t have to explain any more why it looked like North Korea was honoring the KEDO agreement and the US was not, giving North Korea a perfect excuse to resume its nuclear program.  I did not have to explain how we lost Italy’s satellite.  I did not have to explain why the US punished children for the sins of their fathers.

Good diplomats do a lot of things that they may not like doing.  I often lied to protect intelligence or to protect negotiating positions.  If I had not been eligible for retirement, I probably would not have fallen on my sword and resigned.  I wish I had left under better circumstances, but I have many good memories of my career.  It seemed, however, that no matter how high you rose, you always could end up responsible for policies that you disagreed with.  Even the Secretary of State has to do what the President wants.  Ask Hillary about Syria or Libya.

Think Tank Corruption

I was disturbed by the long article that ran on the front page of the NYT on August 8 regarding the transfromation of the Brookings Institution from a think tank to a lobbying organziation. It seemed like the icing on the cake of corruption in Washington. In the old days, when a congressman, senator, or high ranking career government bureaucrat resigned, they often went into academia or to a think tank like Brookings. But starting a generation or longer ago, they started going into lobbying, usually using their influence in the very areas that they deal with while they were in government. The revolving door has been spinning faster and faster, and now Brookings has joined in. Washington has sold its integrity for money. Men and women who should be concerned about the fate of their country now sell themselves to the highest bidder, and Brookings has put on its hot pants and joined the other hookers on the street corner. If what it is doing is not be illegal, ir is certainly unethical. It has sullied its reputation.

I was initailly concerned that Jews had taken over Brookings and had brought low class ethincs with them. The photographs on the inside pages of the story were of Martin Indyk, Henry Kravis, and Marek Goodman, all Jews. The article focussed on what Brookings was doing to promote the business of Lennar Homes. The main Lennar contact in the article is Kofi Bonner, who is Ghanan, not Jewish.

The other think tank mentioned at length in the article is the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The article raises questions about its connections with and possible lobbying for General Atomic and Huntington Ingalls. General Atomic builds drones, and Huntington Ingalls builds ships for the Navy. I didn’t see any Jewish connection there. It just seemed like more of the old-boy, revolving door network of former regulators or purchasers now on the other side, helping sell to their old colleagues.