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Dear Leader

Friday, December 7, 2007

Pen Pals

Could it be that President Bush is considering using Pyongyang for a Nixonian "Peking Moment" before the end of his term? There's a lot of row left to hoe, but that's the direction that South Korea would like to see things go in. And the announcement that Bush had sent a personal note to "Chairman" Kim via Chris Hill has led to a certain amount of speculation.

...The US still wants to know about North Korea's program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, separately and secretly from the plutonium that everyone knows about at Yongbyon, and also wants to know what North Korea has been doing to "proliferate" its nuclear expertise elsewhere, notably to Syria and Iran.

The rewards for North Korea, as far as the Americans are concerned, are completely clear. If only Kim Jong-il will come through as desired, the US will surely remove the North from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism, will take away the embargo on most forms of trade with North Korea, will even normalize diplomatic relations and asset to a peace treaty.

The easy criticism to make is that the Bush administration, once again, has gotten its priorities mixed up in terms of nuclear non-proliferation. By fully engaging with a nuclearized North Korea, even in return for total transparency, it will only reinforce the idea that nuclear weapons capacity is the only guarantee against the interventionist doctrine of regime change. Obviously Tehran will be paying close attention to how things evolve.

But I think the more productive analysis is that engagement in this case is the lesser of two evils and the best hope for a stable outcome. After initially exacerbating the already challenging North Korean nuclear standoff, the Bush administration has managed to correct course and arrive at the cusp of a satisfactory resolution. A lot depends on how committed Kim Jong-il is to actually arriving at and respecting a final agreement. But if the promise of normalized diplomatic ties proves to be determinant, the argument for a broad diplomatic intitiative towards Tehran is only strengthened.

Again, there's a lot of row left to hoe. If the Annapolis summit caused Dick Cheney's pacemaker to sputter and blink, a Pyongyang summit between Bush and Kim would make it light up like a pinball machine. And Bush's notoriously bad judgment about foreign leaders' souls immediately de-legitimizes even his most promising foreign policy initiatives. But just like it took Nixon to go to Peking, it would be hard to roll back a Bush administration imprimatur on a lasting engagement with North Korea. And even harder to deny the logic of applying the same approach to Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Iran   

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

License To IL

Laura Rozen directs our attention to this Yossi Melman Haaretz piece, which adds yet another veil of uncertainty onto the Israeli airstrike in Syria two months ago. Melman cites an Israeli professor who, after analyzing satellite photos, claims the Syrian site was not a reactor after all, but a nuclear bomb-assembling plant. The explicit assumption is that Syria was already in possession of the fissionable material necessary for constructing the bomb, and the implicit assumption is that it came from the only place on Earth where fissionable material is not held very accountable to the international community's standards of non-proliferation. Which gives me the perfect excuse to unload this photo, which I've titled "The Mack" and have been holding onto for just such an occasion.

This story had lain dormant for long enough that I was beginning to wonder whether or not it would re-surface. Of course, given the lack of any meaningful attempt to actually reveal what took place, as well as the epistemological challenges involved in using "intelligence" to convince anyone of anything anymore, there are two possibilities about the latest theory, namely 1) the phony reactor meme had been conclusively debunked, so it was necessary to find a new phony meme to alarm people about the threat posed by North Korea; or 2) the phony reactor meme doesn't even come close to doing justice to how seriously IL Kim Jong really is.

I've always dismissed the worst-case scenario that has one country (usually Pakistan, North Korea and lately Russia) just handing over a bomb to another country (usually Iran and lately Syria) in a fit of pique over an American unilateral military intervention, mainly because it seems farfetched, but also because it seems implausible to assume that any of those countries would assume the risks of actually transporting a nuclear device. Anything approaching appropriate security measures would almost guarantee attracting surveillance attention, and any attempt to sneak the thing in would leave it too vulnerable to interception.

But if the Melman story is true (and that's a big if), Kim Jong-il decided it just ain't no thang to sling some plutonium on The Corner of All Corners, the Middle East. And that's ill.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Syria Snapshots

Now that administration hawks have established (in the popular imagination) a Syrian-North Korean proliferation link, it looks like the "Rice-Gates-Keep Cheney Away From The Launch Codes" faction has decided to push back. The NY Times is reporting the release of another satellite image of the alleged Syrian nuclear site, this one dating back to 2003, showing that the building believed to be a nuclear reactor was already under construction back then:

A dispute has broken out between conservatives and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with North Korea in the face of intelligence that North Korea might have helped Syria design a nuclear reactor.

The new image may give ammunition to those in the administration, including Ms. Rice, who call for diplomacy. If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead.

For whatever it's worth, the outfit that released the image, GeoEye, is based in Dulles, Va, a stone's throw from CIA headquarters in Langley. Its Board of Directors includes a former career CIA operative, and a Reagan-era Lt. General who worked on the SDI program. Not unusual for the private sector satellite imagery racket, I'm sure, but enough to make me wonder whether there aren't any backroom agendas being played out here. Hmmm... You think?

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   The Middle East   

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Nuclear Fingerprints

Via Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk comes this NY Times article on the pressure the Bush administration is feeling from the right over its North Korean deal. Here's the key graf:

One senior administration official, who has seen the intelligence about the Syrian site and advocates a tougher line against North Korea, said he was frustrated that even in light of possible North Korean help on a Syrian nuclear program, “we are shaking hands with the North Koreans because they have once again told us they are going to disarm.”

From the moment North Korea was mentioned in connection to whatever Syria was doing out in the desert that warranted an Israeli airstrike, it was clear that there was more at stake here than just regional nuclear politics. Lewis goes through the recent satellite imagery and finds it inconclusive, whether as proof that the structure was a nuclear facility or that it was based on North Korean designs. (The fact that Syria has apparently swept the site clean probably means we'll never know for sure.) He also points out that the intelligence we've heard about so far has been leaked by the Bush administration insiders who lost the internal debate, that is those who argue for a tougher stance on North Korea and by extension Iran (ie. Cheney et al).

That's not to say that the intelligence is false. But keep this in mind as more of it gets leaked.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Foreign Policy   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Die Hard

Back in March 2003, while the Bush administration and most of the country was busy preparing for war with Iraq, Stanley Kurtz had the foresight to consider the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. Here's what he predicted in a piece for The National Review Online:

...Once North Korea processes weapons-grade plutonium and removes it from Yongbyon, that plutonium will be effectively hidden from spy satellites, inspectors, and military strikes. At that point, North Korea will be free, not only to construct more nuclear weapons, but to sell weapons-grade nuclear material to al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and anyone else who will pay for it.

Continuation of this situation will be catastrophic for the United States. In the short term, North Korean sales of plutonium would lead to dirty bombs in American cities, rendering sections of Washington or New York uninhabitable for generations. In the medium term, plutonium sales will doubtless lead to full-scale nuclear blasts, set off by terrorists, in American cities. These will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans. Full-scale nuclear arms proliferation to rogue nations will also lead to yet more nuclear blackmail, of the type being practiced by Korea right now. In effect, America's conventional military might will be neutralized, and Saddam-like regional adventurers will become a constant threat. In short, if we overthrow Saddam, while still letting North Korea turn itself into a worldwide engine of nuclear proliferation, then we will have lost the war on terror.

Of course, North Korea proceeded to not only process its plutonium and remove it from the plant, but to successfully test a nuclear device. With the most catastrophic consequence (from the NRO's perspective, that is) being that negotiations over the shuttering of the Yongbyon plant have apparently progressed to the point that North Korea will soon be removed from official membership in the Axis of Evil (ie. the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism).

Now does this demonstrate that nuclear proliferation among rogue states is desirable? I suppose that depends on which side of the negotiating table you find yourself on. I, for one, am not too thrilled by the idea of a nuclear North Korea. Ditto for a nuclear Iran or Syria. (Same goes for Israel, the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan et al, though I wouldn't put them in the same category, and I think their track records as nuclear powers demonstrate proven restraint in the face of provocations.) The North Koreans, of course, would probably see things differently.

What this does demonstrate, though, is that the assumption that possessing a nuclear weapon will automatically render hostile, rogue regimes recklessly and aggressively belligerent is unfounded. For all the caricatures of Kim Il-Jong as an erratic, laughable munchkin, the guy has played his hand skillfully to obtain exactly what he wanted. Which, it turns out, is not to dominate the world, or even Southeast Asia, but to simply secure his survival.

There's a lesson to be learned here, most obviously with regard to Iran, but also for re-inventing our nuclear non-proliferation strategy for the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. Hollywood doomsday scenarios sell tickets at the box office. But solid diplomacy gets the job done in the real world.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Did Dick Sign Off On This?

Let's imagine for a moment that the Israeli air raid on Syria earlier this month really did target a Syrian nuclear facility. And that the equipment at the site really was provided by the North Koreans. And that the Israelis provided unequivocal proof of that to the Bush administration in July.

If that's what actually happened in northeastern Syria, do you really think we'd go ahead and free up the $25 million in energy assistance for the North Korean government that we'd promised as part of the six-party agreement signed in February?

I've seen it suggested that America wanted to avoid any open confrontation about proliferation violations until after the North Korean nuclear facilities are cemented up and their bombs dismantled. But when it comes to negotiations, this administration is obsessed with leverage. And I don't see how we maintain much leverage if we let the North Koreans know that they can pretty much violate the agreement and get away with it.

Which leads me to believe that whatever actually happened in northeastern Syria, it did not involve North Korean-supplied nuclear materials.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   The Middle East   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Talks Are Cheap?

Remember the agreement we reached with the N. Koreans to re-seal their plutonium reactor? Well it's on ice for the time being, because the Treasury Dept. dragged its feet in freeing up $25 million in frozen N. Korean accounts.

The US has claimed that the accounts represented a money laundering scheme, since half of the balance was the result of smuggling and other illegal activities. But as part of the agreement over N. Korea's nuclear program, we agreed to unfreeze the loot. After a lot of back and forth over somewhat confusing finance regulations, the money has been unfrozen but the N. Koreans still don't have access to it yet. So they walked out of the latest round of Six-Party Talks in Beijing today.

Now it could be, as some have argued, that the N. Koreans are just using this as an excuse to stall the negotiation process. But for a measly $12 mil, why give them the chance?

Update: As this McClatchy article points out, part of the problem with clearing the N. Korean funds from the Macau Delta Bank where they've been frozen is that no other bank is willing to accept them, even for immediate disbursement to the N. Koreans. Why? They're worried about getting caught up in the bureaucratic red tape and hot water of Patriot Act banking regulations:

A little-noticed provision of the 2001 Patriot Act has given foreign banks reason to be wary of U.S. regulators. It allows the U.S. Treasury, without producing any evidence, to isolate foreign banks that cross the Bush administration on a range of issues that aren't always related to terrorism. (Emphasis added.)

I suppose it's not surprising that the administration that introduced Faith-Based Initiatives should be so hostile to evidence. What's curious is why the American people, usually so pragmatic and skeptical, would go along for the ride.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   

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