Lucy and the football: North Korea
A couple of days ago the news sounded good--or at least what passes for good in the seemingly interminable attempt to talk North Korea out of developing nuclear weapons:
North Korea agreed Monday to stop building nuclear weapons and allow international inspections in exchange for energy aid, economic cooperation and security assurances, in a first step toward disarmament after two years of six-nation talks. The chief U.S. envoy to the talks praised the breakthrough as a "win-win situation" and "good agreement for all of us."
I'm no North Korea expert. But it didn't take an expert to have grave reservations on hearing the news, and I had reservations so grave as to amount to total disbelief. The history of North Korea's dance with disarmament is a timeline to give the most hopeful of optimists pause. It's a record of so many blatant lies, broken promises, bluster, and bombast as to belong in the realm of the pathological rather than the diplomatic.
There is no rational actor or honest broker in the government of North Korea. There is only, as astute commenter "veryretired" at Austin Bay put it, a government that:
...will say anything, promise anything, agree to anything in order to obtain the aid it needs to continue for a little longer. However, none of the promises or agreements mean the NK regime will actually carry through with whatever they were supposed to do. In time, they will claim that the US violated some aspect of the deal and demand further aid in order to be coaxed back into the negotiation process. The only point worth remembering in this endless courtship dance is that the NK regime is composed of psychopaths who have no shame, no inhibitions about lying, no ethical standards other than remain in power by whatever means for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, I think this states the case succinctly and exactly. North Korea reminds me of nothing so much as Lucy and the football in the venerable "Peanuts" cartoon. Over and over, Lucy persuades dupe Charlie Brown into believing that this time---this time, for sure!--he can trust her. Then, at the eleventh hour, she inevitably foils him once again.
So when North Korea demanded that it be given its reactors first, before any of its nuclear weapons are dismantled, it really was no more a surprise than Lucy's recurrent excuses to Charlie Brown.
Of course, North Korea (Lucy) is not the only player here. In this case it's China that appears to really hold the cards--or the football. When the six-nation talks reconvened two years ago it was China, in its role as sponsor of the sessions, that had a stake in not being made to look bad if the talks fell through yet again. But the economic leverage (stopping the flow of oil, for example) that China could exercise to turn the screws on North Korea has not been used, for reasons best known only to China, which no doubt is playing its own very complex game.
How does one negotiate with a psychopath, Kim Jong-il? Very, very carefully, and very, very skeptically. The usual concerns of a leader for the well-being of his/her citizens are absent here, so it's hard to know what sort of pressure would be likely to reach him. For anyone wishing further elucidation on the personality with which we are dealing in Kim Jong-il, I suggest reading Philip Gourevitch's powerfully ominous biographical essay "Alone in the Dark", which appeared two years ago in the New Yorker. Articles such as that one are the reason I have no intention of canceling my subscription any time soon.