LONDON - The tentative deal on North Korea's nuclear weapons program on Feb. 13 is worse than the deal that the Bush Administration wrecked in 2005, and considerably worse than the one the Clinton administration made but did not abide by in 1994. This deal lets North Korea keep whatever nuclear weapons it has already built, plus whatever others it can build with fissile material that it has already produced. But it's probably the best deal left.
The pattern of bargaining by nuclear blackmail that is now so closely identified with Kim Jong-Il's regime actually began in the final full year of his father's rule. In 1993, Kim Il-sung's regime refused an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Authority of North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Instead, he announced, Pyongyang would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon to extract plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons.
By June, 1994, the Clinton administration was seriously discussing air strikes against Yongbyon, but former president Jimmy Carter sensed that this was actually a bargaining ploy by a regime that was in desperate economic trouble. (Like Cuba, North Korea had depended heavily on Soviet economic subsidies that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.) Mr. Carter went to Pyongyang and substituted bribery for threats.
Within days, North Korea agreed to remain under NPT safeguards, admit IAEA inspectors, and stop trying to reprocess plutonium. In return, under the "Agreed Framework," the United States, South Korea, and Japan promised to supply Pyongyang with two pressurized-water reactors (whose spent fuel would not yield fissile material), after which North Korea would shut down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon.
They would also provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually for free, and facilitate the shipment of a large volume of food aid by various international aid agencies.
Pyongyang obeyed this agreement for the next eight years, although it soon discovered a loophole: the deal did not explicitly ban North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons by the alternative means of mining uranium ore and enriching it. And although the free oil arrived faithfully each year through the later 1990s, enabling the North Korean economy to stagger on, the United States never kept its commitment to build two pressurized-water reactors for North Korea. Then the Bush Administration took office in 2001, and disavowed the deal entirely.
President Bush denounced Kim Jong-Il as a monstrous tyrant (perfectly true), and formally abandoned the U.S. commitment to build two pressurized-water reactors for North Korea. Shortly afterwards he ended free oil shipments to the country - and a year later, after 9/11, Mr. Bush declared the North Korean regime a member of the "axis of evil" that the United States was going to dismantle.
Pyongyang panicked, and Kim Jong-Il did exactly what his father had done in 1993. In October, 2002, North Korea openly acknowledged its secret uranium enrichment program, and in January, 2003, it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Soon afterwards it began reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon that had been in storage since 1994.
The so-called "six-party talks," including North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, finally got under way in August, 2003. Everybody else involved was well aware that any agreement would have to resemble the 1994 deal, but the Bush Administration desperately resisted that conclusion. On several occasions North Korea flounced out of the talks, and eventually an agreement was reached along the predictable lines.
In September, 2005, North Korea agreed to rejoin the NPT, end its efforts to produce nuclear weapons, and readmit IAEA inspectors. In return, the other parties agreed to resume oil shipments to North Korea and to build the promised pressurized-water reactors, and the United States promised not to attack North Korea or try to overthrow its regime.
Then, quite unexpectedly, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on North Korea on the (unproven) grounds that Pyongyang was counterfeiting U.S. dollars. It's still not clear whether this was a deliberate spoiling move by hard-liners within the administration or just poor policy coordination, but the deal fell apart. A year later, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon.
Now, inevitably, there is a new deal along much the same lines: North Korea shuts down the Yongbyon reactor, and gets a million tons of fuel in return. But now it has at least a couple of nuclear weapons (though they may not work very well), and it looks like it gets to keep them.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.