By Dan Calabrese
Are you making history when you do something that was already done – and failed – less than a generation ago?
A lot of you were angry with me yesterday for casting shade on what’s being sold as a “history making achievement” by Donald Trump in getting Kim Jong Un to sign his name to a piece of paper pledging denuclearization. It’s different in form, that’s for sure: We haven’t seen the leaders of the two nations meet in person and shake hands . . . ever. It’s never happened. North Korea has only existed since 1948, of course, but no American president has met with his Nork counterpart until Trump did so yesterday, let alone taken part in a signing ceremony with him. (Meetings involving former presidents don’t count.)
But what matters is not that they met, or that they shook hands, or that they signed their names. What matters is what’s in the agreement, and whether it’s verifiable. Usually conservatives enjoy the expression about the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But conservatives who want to cheer this as a triumph for Donald Trump should know that what’s being discussed here has not only been discussed before.
It’s been done before. Almost exactly like the deal being contemplated now. And the result was, needless to say, not what was hoped.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration signed what was known as the Agreed Framework with the regime of Kim Jong Il, who had only assumed power weeks earlier after the death of his father Kim Il Sung – the original dictator of communist North Korea (and bizarrely, according to the law, still president of North Korea to this day).
North Korea had been committed to not pursue nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but it was threatening to bolt from the treaty and develop nukes anyway. President Bill Clinton sent Jimmy Carter (yeah, I know) to meet with Kim Il Sung in pursuit of a deal in which the Norks would give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. support in developing non-military nuclear energy capacity. Although Kim Il Sung died before the process could be completed, the U.S. and North Korea signed the deal in 1994, and it contained many of the same commitments Trump now says Kim Jong Un is willing to make.
Tell me if this summation from History.com sounds familiar:
Just four pages long, the agreement said that North Korea would shut down its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, abandon two others, and seal fuel that could potentially be used to create a nuclear weapon. In exchange, the U.S. would provide oil to make up for the fuel lost from the dismantled plants and would build two new “light fuel” plants from which it would be harder to extract nuclear materials. If North Korea did try to get fuel out of the new plants, it would be easy for nuclear watchdogs to identify—and hard to hide. In addition, the agreement promised that the U.S. would lift economic sanctions and its diplomatic freeze on North Korea and agree that it would not use nuclear weapons of its own on North Korea.
On the surface, it looked like the U.S. was offering huge concessions to North Korea in exchange for few assurances. But behind the scenes, the Clinton administration thought that North Korea was on the verge of collapse and likely wouldn’t last long enough for the U.S. to build the agreed-upon reactors. In North Korea, the agreement wasn’t taken seriously. Isolated, impoverished and headed by a leader who believed nuclear power would give the country power on the international stage, North Korea had little motivation to give up its program.
Clinton knew the agreement would be hugely controversial—so he structured it in a way that ensured it wouldn’t have to be ratified by the Senate. Republicans were infuriated. And shortly after the agreement was signed, the Republicans won control of Congress. They grilled Gallucci. “It was pretty harsh,” he told PBS in 2003. “We did not get ticker tape parades, as it turned out.” Congress made it clear that they would not agree to actually fund the implementation of the project or sanction formal peace agreements between the two countries.
Meanwhile, North Korea continued producing uranium. Kim Jong Il, it turned out, had used potential nukes as a bargaining chip—even though he had no intention of stopping the program. Despite promising initial results, North Korea began flouting the agreement more and more. North Korea ignored warnings that the agreement was in jeopardy and soon intelligence agencies realized it possessed much more advanced nuclear tech than the U.S. had suspected.
The Norks complained in the ensuing years that the U.S. was not honoring its commitments under the deal, and eventually withdrew from the NPT just as they’d been threatening to do before the signing of the Agreed Framework. Once the U.S. realized Kim Jong Il hadn’t given up all its nukes and hadn’t stopped work on missile systems there was no effective inspection regime in place to do anything about it.
And no threat of military action was credible, because the U.S. would not under any circumstances risk a tussle with China to disarm North Korea.
The whole thing proved to be a complete and utter failure. And it was fundamentally the same deal we’re about to make with Kim Jong Un.
So why should we think it’s actually going to result in a denuclearized North Korea this time? You’ve got your answer all ready: “Donald J. Trump.” He is Mr. Art of the Deal, the master negotiator and tough customer Carter and Clinton were not, and he’s going to make sure the details are right and compliance is ensured.
But the compliance mechanisms in the 1994 deal appeared pretty strong too, until North Korea found reasons to complain about the deal – and until we realized that it hadn’t been possible to ascertain the Norks had gotten rid of all their nukes – which in fact they had not, and had never intended to. And then, as now, China protected North Korea from any real penalties for their actions.
But let’s say it’s all going to be different this time because Donald Trump is president, and John Bolton is National Security Adviser, and Mike Pompeo is Secretary of State. And they’ll see to it that we get anytime/anywhere inspections, and that Americans do all the inspections personally. I have yet to see evidence that’s going to be part of the deal, but let’s say it is.
Donald Trump will not always be president. A Republican will not always be president. Some day we will have another feckless president like Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. I hope not, but we might even have one in three years.
The leadership in North Korea will never change as long as North Korea exists. It will always be communist. It will probably always be the Kim family. And it will never adhere to any agreement one day longer than it believes its own interests dictate it must. When the North Korean communists decide they want to start working on nuclear weapons again – assuming they ever stop, which I highly doubt – they will not care that the American president objects. They will kick out any and all inspectors, just as Saddam Hussein did, and they will do what they want to do.
You say: Why be a Johnny Raincloud? Give this a chance!
I’m happy to give it a chance. But that doesn’t require me not to talk about all the reasons we should be very wary of dealing with this country. Nothing in their history suggests they are serious, trustworthy or interested in peace. And everything in their history suggests they like to come back again and again to try to pull the same wool over the eyes of one U.S. president after another.
If you think Donald Trump can do what none of his predecessors were able to do, booyah. I hope he can. But don’t entertain the delusion that he’s already done it, because he hasn’t, and don’t refuse to acknowledge the lessons of history that suggest how much can go wrong here.
Dan writes Christian spiritual warfare novels and does all kinds of other weird things too. Follow all his activity by liking him on Facebook!