Diplomacy Delayed Is Not Diplomacy Denied

Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb. By Charles L. Pritchard, Brookings Institution Press, May 2007, 228 pp.

Leon V. Sigal

A funny thing happened to Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard on the way to writing Failed Diplomacy. President George W. Bush decided to try making deals directly with North Korea for a change—and succeeded.

When Bush took office, Pyongyang had stopped testing longer-range missiles, had one or two bombs worth of plutonium, and was verifiably not making more. Six years later, it had eight to ten bombs worth of plutonium, had resumed testing missiles, and had little reason to restrain itself from nuclear testing or, worse, generating more plutonium. U.S. pressure had failed to put the brakes on a North Korean nuclear program, sowing doubts among those in Japan and South Korea who question whether they can rely on Washington for their security, and potentially triggering a regional nuclear arms race.

Now, with Bush on board, the policy of reconciling with North Korea as it gets rid of its nuclear weapons programs, step by reciprocal step, is back on course. Bush’s imprimatur also makes it easier for his successor to stay on the road to reconciliation.

What Pritchard documents in detail is not failed diplomacy, but untried diplomacy. By miscasting Bush as a prisoner of his gut instincts, in thrall to hard-liners who impeded diplomatic give-and-take at every turn, the book gives readers few clues to how his turnabout could have happened.

The reason in part is that Pritchard’s book is a memoir, not a history, and like the best of the genre it puts the author at the center of the action. Pritchard was there for just a brief interval, however, as director for Asia on the National Security Council (NSC) staff until the end of March 2001, when he moved over to the Department of State to be special envoy for North Korea until August 2003. As a result, the book has few revealing moments.

While on the NSC staff, Pritchard saw Bush up close and personal, and his first impression was a lasting one. Just after his inauguration, Bush was making obligatory telephone calls to world leaders and rang up South Korea’s president, Kim Dae-jung, who seized the moment to instruct Bush about the need to sustain diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

Bush, who reportedly does not abide much formality or tutoring, bristled. Pritchard writes, “The president put his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone and said, ‘Who is this guy? I can’t believe how naive he is.’” His language may have been coarser, but the exchange was a foretaste of worse to come in U.S. relations with Seoul.

For most of the time, however, Pritchard’s vantage point is below the commanding heights, in the trenches where bureaucratic battles on North Korea were fought to a standstill for six long years. The result, as summed up succinctly by a senior official at the end of 2004, was “no carrots, no sticks and no talks” —in short, no policy.[1] Pritchard captures that self-defeating struggle well.

The hard-liners Pritchard confronts are Robert Joseph, NSC senior director for nonproliferation; John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, a public nuisance but bureaucratic lightweight; Eric Edelman of the vice president’s office; and J. D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.

Yet for Pritchard, along with the rest of the world, the Oval Office is Plato’s cave. He sees shadows on the wall, hears faint echoes of murmurs and whispers; but he can only guess what Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, even Secretary of State Colin Powell, are saying and doing. That is often the fate of midlevel officials, but it was especially difficult to penetrate Bush’s tight-lipped inner circle. What little that did leak has come from Powell’s assiduous backgrounding of Bob Woodward or the notes of intimate White House meetings that George Tenet shared with Ron Suskind.[2]

No one was more tight-lipped than Cheney, who seldom revealed himself, even in meetings with other officials. A rare exception came in a December 12, 2003, interagency meeting to consider the draft of what would eventually become the September 2005 six-party joint statement. The draft called for rewarding North Korea at each step with political measures as well as energy and other forms of economic assistance. Cheney intervened to reject it. A senior administration official quoted him as saying, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” [3] Pritchard retells the incident, but his account of it is secondhand, based on reporting by Knight Ridder’s Warren Strobel, one of the few journalists to get much of the North Korea story right.

Pritchard’s initial impression of Bush led him to conclude, along with most of Washington, that the president would remain unyielding. He is convinced that a “cabal”—a well-chosen word he picks up from Powell aide Larry Wilkerson—in the offices of the vice president and the defense secretary would continue to block direct talks with North Korea, dooming diplomacy.

Pritchard reveals, however, that there was not one cabal in the Bush administration, but two. The second had Powell at the center.

Pritchard relates Powell’s efforts to restart talks after the administration concluded its policy review in June 2001. His account makes clear Powell was acting without clearance from the White House. Having publicly committed the United States to talks “anytime, anyplace, and without preconditions,” Powell instructed Pritchard in March 2002 to meet with Pak Gil-yon, North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations, to set up direct talks. Pritchard wanted someone from the White House to accompany him “as an indication of presidential approval of the message.” When Michael Green, NSC director for Asian affairs, was authorized to go along, Pritchard writes that “it was more to keep an eye on” him, with good reason it turned out. Pritchard prepared no “specific talking points or a script,” presumably to avoid clearing them with other agencies.

Powell’s gambit failed. Pak responded early the next month that Pyongyang was ready for talks, recalls Pritchard. “When I reported Pak’s response, I was told not to reply—that the White House was reconsidering its options.”

Bush, Pritchard was told, had had a “gut feeling” about not getting bogged down in prolonged talks. He ordered a second policy review. In a matter of weeks that yielded the so-called “bold approach,” which was a lot more specific about how North Korea had to disarm than about what benefits it would get after it did.

Several months later, Powell once more seized the initiative. He arranged a supposed “chance meeting” on July 31 with North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Brunei. “In reality, nothing was left to chance,” Pritchard says, prompting “howls of indignation from the hard-line group within the administration” when press reports of the meeting came out.

Again, the hard-liners struck back. By the time direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang finally took place in October 2002, more than 20 months into the administration, the hard-liners had seized on a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) first briefed in June. U.S. intelligence, it said, “recently learned that the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade.”[4]

The NIE’s conclusion that North Korea had been seeking the means to make enough gas centrifuges for a large-scale enrichment program was incontestable, but no cascade of thousands of centrifuges or uranium hexafluoride plant has ever been found. Moreover, how much equipment Pyongyang had already acquired and hence how long the program would take to become operational was a matter of doubt. Never mind all that: “The subject of the talks had changed radically,” writes Pritchard. “Instead of delivering the bold-approach message, the United States was preparing to confront North Korea over its highly enriched uranium (HEU) program,” with predictably disastrous results.

Pritchard’s account of that fateful October 2002 encounter perpetuates the fiction that First Vice Minister Kang Sok-ju “admitted” that North Korea had an enrichment program:

While there was no precise, irrefutable statement—a smoking gun—many factors led all eight members of the U.S. delegation to reach the conclusion that Kang had effectively and defiantly admitted to having an HEU program. Kang acknowledged that we said that his country had begun a uranium-enrichment program for the production of nuclear weapons.

None of the officials in the delegation, however, spoke Korean. “We isolated our Korean linguists,” Pritchard writes, “with instructions to recreate Kang’s remarks from what they remembered him saying or from notes that they took from his presentation in Korean.” Other Korean-speaking officials who have reviewed the record contest that interpretation.

In fact, the North Koreans did something more interesting than admit to working on enrichment: they put the program on the negotiating table. Kelly acknowledged as much on October 19, 2002, while in Seoul to work out an allied response. Asked by Doug Struck of The Washington Post whether Kang had suggested that Pyongyang might be willing to give up the program in return for a guarantee that Washington would not attack, would sign a peace accord, and would accept his government, Kelly replied, “They did suggest after this harsh and—personally, to me—surprising admission, suggest that there were measures that might be taken that were generally along these lines.” Under strict instructions not to negotiate, Kelly rejected the offer.

Pritchard, too, provides evidence for the offer. Kang, he writes:

stated his understanding [of the U.S. position] that if Pyongyang halted uranium enrichment, then the United States would give it “everything.” Kang countered that understanding with a [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)] proposal: that the United States should recognize North Korea’s system of government, conclude a peace agreement with a nonaggression commitment, and not interfere with North Korea’s economic development. Once that was accomplished, the United States and the DPRK could discuss U.S. concerns about uranium enrichment on an equal footing.

Pyongyang’s counter to the administration’s bold proposal was that Washington, not Pyongyang, go first. Hard-liners, however, were quick to leak the story of North Korea’s “admission.” They had obtained a copy of the closely held reporting cable from the British, Pritchard reveals, and disclosed it even before Powell was able to brief the president. As official suppression of the North Korean offer shows, truth is sometimes the first casualty in talks, not just war.

Under President Bill Clinton, the United States had secured a freeze of North Korea’s plutonium program, but it had been slow to carry out its obligations under the accord to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations” by ending enmity and lifting sanctions and to provide two nuclear power plants “by a target date of 2003.” North Korea responded tit-for-tat in 1998 by beginning to acquire the means to enrich uranium from Pakistan and conducting its first and only test launch of the Taepo Dong-1 missile. Now, the United States prevailed on its allies, South Korea and Japan, to halt future shipments of heavy fuel oil, the only commitment under the Agreed Framework that it had been faithfully carrying out. North Korea promptly retaliated by throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and reigniting its plutonium program.

Undaunted, Powell kept testing the negotiating waters. Knowing that Tokyo, building on the Pyongyang Declaration signed by Kim Jong-il and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at their September 2002 summit meeting, was trying to convene multilateral talks, he broached the idea in February 2003 that Beijing host the talks instead. The Chinese, anxious to head off a threatened U.S. attack, consented. They eventually did persuade the North Koreans to participate in three-party talks that April by promising it would be an opportunity for bilateral talks with the United States. Kelly, however, allowed himself to be tightly bound by his instructions prohibiting bilateral contact, assuring that the talks went nowhere.

It took two more years before Kelly’s successor, Christopher Hill, was allowed to engage in sustained direct diplomatic give-and-take with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gae-gwan, during the fourth round of six-party talks in September 2005. Under pressure from allies South Korea and Japan, the administration grudgingly accepted a joint statement that incorporated the main goal it was seeking, a pledge by Pyongyang to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The deal was no sooner done, however, than Washington began backing away from it. Hard-liners capitalized on a Department of the Treasury investigation of money laundering at the Banco Delta Asia in Macau to try to put pressure on North Korea. The action convinced skittish bankers to freeze North Korean hard currency accounts around the globe, some of it ill-gotten gains from illicit activities, but mostly proceeds from legitimate foreign trade. How much that crimped trade is unclear, but to Pyongyang, it looked a lot like regime change.

Far from giving Washington leverage, the financial measures provoked Pyongyang to retaliate. For more than a year, it refused to return to six-party talks while seeking to resolve the Banco Delta Asia issue bilaterally. When Hill tried to pick up North Korea’s invitation for direct talks in November 2005, he was kept from going to Pyongyang unless North Korea shut down its reactor first, assuring that no talks took place. After Hill was kept from direct talks with Kim Gae-gwan in Tokyo on April 11-12, Kim was blunt in briefing the press. “Now we know what the U.S. position is,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with delaying the resumption of six-party talks. In the meantime, we can make more deterrents.”

Within weeks, Pyongyang began preparations for missile tests. After Beijing sent a high-level mission to Pyongyang to press North Korea to call them off or else face sanctions, North Korea made the Chinese cool their heels for three days before seeing them, then went ahead and tested anyhow, knowing it would affront its ally. Its July 4 tests of seven missiles, including a failed inaugural flight of its longest-range missile, the Taepo Dong-2, did just that, prompting China to vote in favor of a U.S.-backed resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the tests and threatening sanctions.

North Korea, undaunted, immediately began preparations for its first nuclear test, which it conducted on October 9, 2006. It was demonstrating in no uncertain terms that it would never bow to pressure, from the United States or China. The obvious conclusion was that only U.S. willingness to end enmity could get North Korea to change course.

How did the hard-liners keep undoing the engagers’ efforts? The problem, as Pritchard correctly diagnoses it, was “structural imbalance.” On January 22, 2001, Pritchard discloses, deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley “told senior NSC staff that they and the vice president’s staff would be treated as one staff. He directed us to share information and papers with those in the vice president’s office who worked on national security affairs.” For the first time in history, the vice president’s office had a staff member equivalent to each senior director on the NSC staff. The parallel processing gave Cheney an unprecedented ability to frame options and oversee implementation.

Cheney also took advantage of Bush’s dislike of open disagreement over policy. Bush may call himself “the decider,” but he preferred to ratify agreement reached by his top advisers. With Rice unwilling to take sides, policy drifted as the president wavered, first backing Powell, then his opponents. With his easy access to the Oval Office, Cheney was better positioned than Powell to get to the president last. Parallel processing rigged the system in favor of the hard-liners.

Another problem Pritchard cites was “the general lack of knowledge about Korea or Asia within the administration.” A few top officials, most notably Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, had connections in Japan, but “when it came to Korea and specifically to North Korea, there were no experts in government.” That was not quite the case deeper down in the bureaucracy, where the most knowledgeable were exiled to New York or purged, victims of what Vietnam hand James Thomson once called “the banishment of expertise.”

The opposition to diplomacy was ideological, but Pritchard rightly eschews the term “neocon” to characterize that ideology. Cheney is no neocon. Nor is Rumsfeld. Both are right-wing Republicans who conspired to undo nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union in the past, most notably in the Ford administration.

Why did the president reverse course? Few people know for sure, and they are not talking. No doubt, the pivotal player was Rice. Unlike Powell, or Cheney and Rumsfeld, whose relationships with the president were purely professional, Rice’s is personal. Bush treats her like a member of the family. Persuaded by Hill that a deal was possible, she got the president to sign on to direct and sustained diplomatic give-and-take in the summer of 2006. Once that happened, Cheney could no longer resist. By then too, the departure of some notable hard-liners helped correct the structural imbalance.

China was also a factor, but not because of its supposed influence over North Korea. Unrestrained nuclear arming by North Korea could intensify pressure from right-wing Republicans, who wanted to confront China for not bringing North Korea to its knees. With Democrats challenging China on trade and human rights, that could jeopardize the president’s most significant foreign policy achievement, continued accommodation with China.

Last fall, with a North Korean nuclear test impending, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. They met, by unhappy coincidence, on October 10, the day after the test. Kissinger had a message for Pyongyang that underscored Bush’s willingness to include North Korea at a regional security forum and to sign a peace treaty once North Korea was nuclear-free.

That was the first inkling of Bush’s commendable about-face. He soon accepted North Korea’s long-standing offer to suspend its production of plutonium by shutting down and sealing its reactor, reprocessing plant, and a factory to fabricate fuel rods; halt construction of a larger reactor; and allow inspectors from the IAEA to verify these moves.

To do so, Bush rejected the hard-liners’ counsel and took his first steps toward ending enmity with Pyongyang: authorizing Hill to meet directly with his DPRK counterpart in Beijing and Berlin; pledging to free up suspect North Korean hard currency accounts in the Macau bank; supporting the resumption of shipments of heavy fuel oil suspended in 2002; promising a meeting between Rice and North Korea’s foreign minister; and pledging to relax sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The next steps are laid out in the February 13 joint agreement.[5] (see ACT, March 2007). Inasmuch as dismantlement of nuclear facilities can take years, the accord speaks of “disablement” of all existing nuclear facilities in the next phase. Disabling the reactor and reprocessing plant would make it more time consuming and difficult for North Korea to resume their operation. As a result of Hill’s meeting with Kim Gae-gwan in Geneva on September 1-2, disablement will begin before the end of the year.

A critical first step to regaining control of North Korea’s plutonium and addressing enrichment will be what the IAEA calls an initial declaration from Pyongyang, a list of all its nuclear facilities, fissile material, equipment, and components. The February 13 accord provides for the list to be “discussed” starting in the initial phase, with a complete declaration due in the next phase. The Geneva meeting yielded agreement that, by year’s end, North Korea would declare its plutonium program, including the amount of fissile material, and began bilateral discussion of its enrichment activities.

The main lesson Pritchard draws from his experience is that direct diplomatic give-and-take is essential to stop and reverse proliferation. Yet, a reader could draw three other lessons from Pritchard’s experience. First, no official or so-called expert should assume how far either Bush or Kim Jong-il is willing to go. As Robert Carlin, the United States’ most perspicacious North Korea analyst, once put it, “Finding the truth about the North’s nuclear program is an example of what we ‘know’ sometimes leads us away from what we need to learn.” That is an impulse to which Washington cannot afford to yield in dealing with proliferators. Second, patience, forbearance, and a firm set of priorities are essential in trying to resolve U.S. differences with North Korea. As an old bit of bureaucratic wisdom goes, “If you want it real bad, you may get it real bad.” Third, political relationships, not nuclear weapons, are the key to security. Only a demonstrable end to U.S. and Japanese enmity could make an understandably suspicious Kim feel secure enough to yield his weapons.

Pritchard’s thesis is that, in the words of his title, diplomacy failed, but it was not tried until late last year. When it was, it succeeded. Will Pyongyang live up to its pledge, made in the September 2005 round of six-party talks, to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”? Pritchard thinks not, but the fact is, nobody knows, with the possible exception of Kim Jong-il, and the only way for Washington to find out is sustained, direct diplomatic give-and-take to reconcile with Pyongyang in return for its disarming, reciprocal step by reciprocal step.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.

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1. Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, “Unprecedented Peril Forces Tough Calls,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2004, p. A1.

2. Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004); Ron Suskind, The One Per Cent Doctrine (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

3. Warren Strobel, “U.S. Acting Tough with N. Korea,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2003.

4. See Leon V. Sigal, “North Korea Is No Iraq: Pyongyang’s Negotiating Strategy,” Arms Control Today, December 2002.

5. See Paul Kerr, “Initial Pact Reached to End North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program,” Arms Control Today, March 2007.