Amid the tension surrounding North Korea's unwelcome contribution to last week's Fourth of July fireworks, there were, fortunately, dashes of comic relief. There was John Bolton, who has been devoted to extracting the United States from its arms control commitments, lamenting that a nation transgressed a voluntary arms control commitment. There was the head of the Missile Defense Agency claiming that we had a good chance of shooting down the Taepo Dong-2 if it headed our way--even though the Pentagon stopped testing the missile-defense system last year against targets because it had failed so many times. And there was President Bush, explaining the need for diplomatic patience in dealing with rogue states that have suspected nuclear weapons programs.
But North Korea's nuclear program is serious business, and there is only so much humor to be found in the administration's failure to rein it in--a failure that is quantifiable. When Bush took office, North Korea was thought to have enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. The rest of its plutonium was under international lock and key in a cooling pond in Yongbyon, where there was also a nuclear reactor shut down and under iaea safeguards. Since then, North Korea has reprocessed fuel rods and restarted that reactor, giving it enough plutonium for between four and 13 weapons, according to one recent estimate. In other words, a country whose nuclear program the president has said we cannot tolerate has, under the most conservative estimates, doubled its destructive power.
The disintegration of the Taepo Dong-2 shortly after launch suggests that North Korea is a long way from being able to deliver a nuclear weapon via icbm, but it also laid bare the dysfunction of the so-called six-party process, in which China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan have joined the United States in trying to convince the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program. The stated rationale for a multilateral approach--as opposed to the bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks that froze the Yongbyon facilities in 1994--has been that it would increase pressure on Pyongyang. In particular, the Bush administration has emphasized the importance of China, which it claims has special leverage over the North. But, if last week's tests showed anything, they showed the limits of relying on Beijing. During the weeks that the Taepo Dong-2 sat eagerly on its gantry, Chinese officials warned Kim Jong Il not to launch it, but he did so anyway. Perhaps that disobedience will eventually isolate Kim from his only remaining sponsor, but, for now, China remains leery of joining the United States in sanctioning the North--presumably because it fears the Hermit Kingdom's collapse even more than its nuclear program.
Of course, there is some benefit to having five nations simultaneously confront North Korea, and, last September, in what seemed like a giant step forward, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees, steps toward diplomatic recognition, and economic and energy assistance. That the Bush administration was willing to grant such concessions suggested that Condoleezza Rice was using her newfound power as secretary of state to exert her long-sublimated instincts--a prelude to her admirable push this spring to involve the United States in talks with Iran. After all, for the first two years of the six-party process, disagreement between Bush administration pragmatists (who wanted a nuclear deal with the North) and ideologues (who wanted simply to overthrow Kim) had hamstrung American negotiators.
But a whiff of the self-sabotage that hollowed out earlier efforts persists, suggesting that the Bush administration remains ambivalent about reaching an agreement. Last September, as the six parties were about to announce their breakthrough, the Treasury Department designated a Macau-based bank a "money laundering concern" that allegedly helped the North Koreans circulate counterfeit U.S. currency. This had the effect of scuttling further talks--Pyongyang has refused to return to the table until the "financial sanctions" are lifted.
And there remains the administration's bizarre refusal to talk with the North Koreans directly, despite indications that a bilateral meeting could break the deadlock. The shape of the negotiating table--or, for that matter, the existence of fake $100 bills--seems rather less important than halting North Korea's plutonium production immediately. But, as Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has said, "We really don't see the logic in turning this into a test of wills between two countries--the United States and North Korea." Unfortunately, that's what it has been from the start. And we seem to be losing.
J. Peter Scoblic is the executive editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.