Last Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill made a sudden and surprise visit to North Korea to talk directly with the North Korean government about their nuclear program.

All I can say is– its about (_______) time. And, it shows the power of good, pragmatic diplomacy.

From 2001 through 2004, the Bush Administration held a very tough line toward North Korea–axis of evil, no direct talks, CVID, etc. This tough line was very popular with the Administration’s base conservative philosophy about getting tough with the evil dictators around the world and not negotiating with untrustworthy regimes. Their rationale remains–North Korea is an evil regime that will eventually cheat on its agreements anyway, so don’t give them anything and make them take not just the first step, but absorb most of the risk as well. The result? North Korea backed out of the Agreed Framework nuclear deal the Clinton Administration had negotiated and reactivated its nuclear program. Eventually, the Bush Administration convened the 6-Party Talks, designed to be a multi-lateral format for all those in the region to pressure North Korea to move on its nuclear program, particularly China. This almost worked, in that several near-deals were negotiated, but, like the 2005 deal, fell apart soon thereafter. At the center of the 6-party talk policy was a position that the US would not directly negotiate with the DPRK, all meetings should be in the multi-lateral format. To be sure, there were some side meetings between US and DPRK people around the 6-party talk venue, but a side meeting is not the same as the recognition accorded by a formal bi-lateral meeting.

The problem with the get-tough approach was that North Korea got rather frustrated with its lack of progress, and in an attempt to signal the US, it re-started its nuclear program, tested a couple of missiles, and ultimately tested its first bomb. They were particularly annoyed with the US cutting off access to its funds through a Macao bank.

That alone stands as one of the greatest foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration– a new no-friendly nuclear state on its watch, when all the evidence points to the fact that some sort of continued engagement would have postponed, if not forestalled, the DPRK going nuclear.

Finally, after a number of years of get tough, the administration reverses course to a more engagement / negotiation approach, very similar to the approach taken (with modest success) by the Clinton Administration. They agreed to return North Korea’s money. And it seemed to work. It was telling that now-former administration officials such as John Bolton and Robert Joseph (both who served as Under-Secretary of State for International Security, a key office in these types of negotiations) heavily criticized the deal reached with North Korea.

But Hill, a very skilled diplomat and now the senior State Department North Korean negotiator, was persistent, and pressed for the ability to deal directly with the DPRK. When the invite was issued, he snapped it up and set up his trip.

Lo and Behold, it seems to have paid off. North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyong reactor, ending its production of plutonium for bombs. The IAEA is set to enter North Korea this week for the first time since 2002 for inspections and to set up a plan to monitor this reactor shut-down. And there is (yet another) commitment to restart the 6-party talks. This is a big deal. First, it ends the production of plutonium, meaning that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal won’t grow as it continues to negotiate the future of its nuclear program. Its a pragmatic choice first made in 1994–the US doesn’t get a full accounting of or end to the nuclear program, only a promise to negotiate over it, but the nuclear arsenal stays put. This was obviously more important prior to the test, as it kept North Korea from being able to develop a bomb to test, but still, it contains the problem and keeps it from getting significantly worse. Second, it gets IAEA inspectors back into North Korea. This is very important because, as we’ve learned over the past decade of global non-proliferation, the IAEA is pretty good at its job. They had Iraq’s nuclear program pegged after ’91. Having that inspection regime in place is a tremendous asset in learning about the DPRK program– it keeps what they’ve got in check and gives the international community tremendous insight into the North Korean program. Moreover, it significantly increases the legitimacy of any future deal or hard line with North Korea. It places a UN-family organization in a critical seat and brings dedicated IAEA member-states into the process as stakeholders. The IAEA can legitimate an agreement, and non-cooperation with the IAEA is not the same as non-cooperation with the USA. There are many tired allies who might now be willing to look the other way when North Korea and the US get into a future shouting match. But, bringing the IAEA into the mix helps to legitimize the role of the international community, making this a global problem, not just a regional or bilateral one.

This is a move the US should have made a couple of years ago– its not that costly to send one Assistant Secretary of State to Pyongyang, and the payoff for the move (at this point) seems significant. Now, lets see State is able to follow up on its initial gains and implement this agreement. If it can, its a success for diplomacy enhancing the National Security of the USA.

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