Deja vu all over again in North Korea

(Washington, D.C.): In today’s editions, the Wall Street Journal forcefully editorialized about what the Center for Security Policy has described as “unhelpful freelancing” by a long-time critic of President Bush’s fully justified, hard-line stance towards Communist North Korea. Unfortunately, the mission to Pyongyang being undertaken this week by Charles “Jack” Pritchard will be more than a platform for a proponent of the sorts of irresolute policies that enabled the North to realize its nuclear ambitions.

As the Journal observes, such a trip will inevitably offer the North Korean regime an opportunity to complicate U.S. efforts to contain the threat from that quarter, to put their “thumb in Mr. Bush’s eye” politically and to “embarrass” the administration – even as Mr. Pritchard once again promotes the idea that further concessions should be made to Kim Jong-Il and Company. The result: a lose-lose outcome for the United States.

With an apt reference to the deja-vu-all-over-again theme of the movie “Groundhog Day,” the Journal‘s editors remind us that this is not idle speculation. We have tried this approach and demonstrably gotten the short end of the stick. In fact, for six years, the Clinton Administration tirelessly “engaged” and appeased North Korea in the hope that the rogue regime would finally, actually eschew nuclear weapons. The failure of the Pritchard strategy was unmistakable when the so-called “Agreed Framework” was effectively eviscerated by the North’s admission last year that it possessed nuclear weapons.

As the Center for Security Policy argued yesterday, the sort of “freelancing” being undertaken by Mr. Pritchard “is utterly inconsistent with the very nature of democracy” which requires that “diplomacy [not] be practiced by individuals other than those charged with such responsibilities by their government – and accountable to it.” For this reason, among others, the Bush Administration should not only disassociate and the U.S. government from diplomatic missions by self-appointed emissaries like Jack Pritchard; it should take such steps as are necessary to preclude them from occurring.

Groundhog Day in Pyongyang
The Wall Street Journal, 6 January 2004

So Jack Pritchard is finally getting those bilateral talks with the North Koreans he’s long been promoting. We trust, however, that when Kim Jong Il’s minions sit down with the former State Department official and the delegation he’s traveling with to Pyongyang this week, they’ll notice something very different: This time the only one Mr. Pritchard will be speaking for is himself.

That will be healthy for everyone to keep in mind while Mr. Pritchard visits at the invitation of Pyongyang with a ballyhooed private delegation that also includes Stanford professor John Wilson Lewis and Sigfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Reports suggest that the North Koreans may allow the delegation into the Yongbyon nuclear facility. This would be the first time the site was opened to foreigners since the North expelled United Nations nuclear inspectors in 2002.

Their visit comes at a particularly delicate time, scarcely a month after the breakdown of the planned six-party talks (with U.S., China, Russia, Japan, North Korea and South Korea) that the White House insists is the proper venue for resolving the nuclear standoff. Though the Bush Administration did not stop the visit, a State Department spokesman did warn that the Administration was leery of anything that might “complicate” these multilateral talks.

But complicating U.S. policy is exactly what the North Koreans have in mind by choosing to invite this entourage. Mr. Pritchard is the former Clinton official and later Bush State Department special envoy to North Korea who went out with a media bang back in August. As he was quick to make both clear and public, he favors two things that President Bush has ruled out: bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans, and concessions to get them back to the table.

Given this background it’s hard to read his invitation to Pyongyang as anything but a North Korean thumb in Mr. Bush’s eye. Just in case the ever-subtle Korean Communists might be misunderstood here, they have at the same time announced that the only way they’ll ever come to the negotiating table is if the U.S. first agrees to cough up some new economic aid. The North Korean negotiating position boils down to this: Trust us that this time we really will abandon our nuclear programs, and we will agree to let you pay us even more money.

If all this is beginning to sound like the North Korean version of “Groundhog Day” — the movie in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over — it’s because this has been North Korean procedure from the get-go. And until Mr. Bush arrived on the scene and vowed there’d be no more rewards for bad behavior, the North Koreans had done pretty well by it.

So well that the deal they are offering now is essentially the same one they offered us back in 1994, the last time they manufactured a nuclear crisis. Come to think of it, it was a similar private initiative back then, by former President Jimmy Carter, that helped force a deal at a moment when Bill Clinton was taking a harder line.

We all know how that Agreed Framework turned out. In exchange for promising to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions, the U.S. promised to help build them some reactors to alleviate their energy needs. For a while everyone was happy as the real problem — North Korean lack of compliance — was papered over.

But in 2002 the deal came crashing down when North Korea unilaterally expelled U.N. inspectors from its facilities at Yongbyon, turned off the TV cameras that were monitoring the nuclear fuel, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and then sat back and began threatening to manufacture nuclear weapons (with the unsubtle threat of proliferating them to our enemies) unless Uncle Sam rushed in and offered them even more money to start renegotiating.

It is this same path that Mr. Pritchard and his intellectual and political allies now propose to take us down again. To his credit, while at State he evidently made no bones about his disagreement with the change in direction that President Bush was pursuing. Last April, he finally offered his resignation. The really interesting question is why someone so at odds with official Bush policy was kept on so long, but then again much of the State Department often seems to be a Dean Administration in waiting.

Maybe by opening the door to Mr. Pritchard and Co. the North Koreans figure they can embarrass Mr. Bush or play into the Presidential campaign. But for those who believe that the North Koreans can be sweet-talked into a new deal — and that we should believe them this time — the irony is that this high-profile invitation to one of the Administration’s leading critics may only stiffen the Bush resolve. We hope so.

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