By Stan Crock When President Bush discussed what looked like a major breakthrough in negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programs on Sept. 19, he didn't display any "mission accomplished" ebullience. Rather, he sounded decidedly cautious in saying that, while the accord announced earlier that day in Beijing was "a step forward," it remained unclear whether all parties would stick to the deal.
His caution is understandable. After all, much of the pact echoed the 1994 "Agreed Framework" that the Clinton Administration negotiated, the Bush team trashed, and the U.S. and North Korea each violated. Both accords discuss a light-water nuclear reactor for Pyongyang, a progression toward normalized relations between the U.S. and North Korea, and reciprocal moves as the North dismantles its nuclear capability.
RETURN OF THE INSPECTORS. "This is precisely the agreement that most of these guys when they were out of office said was tantamount to capitulation," says Kurt Campbell, an Asia hand and top Pentagon official in the Clinton Administration.
Furthermore, the Administration clearly has backtracked on a host of negotiating positions. The Bush team has said Pyongyang couldn't have commercial nuclear capabilities because conversion to weapons production is too easy. Plus, a light-water reactor was out of the question, and the country would have to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure before getting any goodies.
Bush & Co. also derided a 2000 communiqué in which the Clinton Administration pledged not to attack the North -- but this new accord includes the same promise. And the Bush Administration will have to rely heavily on the kind of weapons inspectors it scorned in Iraq -- who proved more accurate than American intelligence.
WHY THE CHANGE? Jack Pritchard, a North Korea negotiator during Bush's first term, says that the Bush team's rhetoric about inspectors in Iraq derived from the need to get them out so they wouldn't interfere with the invasion, but he hopes that "an international flavoring to inspectors and with timetables and early success, they [the Administration] will find some value in it."
After hewing to a hard line for so long, why did Washington switch to a more accommodating attitude? Analysts say several factors came into play.
First of all: Plans A and B flopped. The policy of regime change in Iraq to end weapons of mass destruction programs was supposed to send a shiver down Pyongyang's spine. When John Bolton, an Undersecretary of State in the first Bush term, was asked what the message from Iraq was for North Korea, he responded, "Take a number."
RICE'S INFLUENCE. But Iraq has not turned into the example the Administration had hoped. Plan B was to have China pressure the North into concessions. But Beijing didn't want to squeeze Pyongyang for fear its collapse would destabilize the Korean peninsula.
Moreover, hard-line negotiating just prompted the North to end a freeze on its nuclear-reprocessing activities at Yongbyon, throw out international inspectors, and -- Pyongyang claims -- expand its bomb arsenal. That may have prodded the President to change his approach.
Bush "understood that his legacy might be that North Korea became a significant nuclear weapons state on his watch," says Wendy Sherman, a top State Dept. official in the Clinton Administration who handled North Korea issues. Administration officials "realized this was a national security and a political problem."
SOME MOMENTUM. Personnel changes also may have played a role. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice moved Bolton, one of the most hawkish of the hawks, out of Foggy Bottom, where he had torpedoed any real dialogue with the North. Rice also appointed a veteran negotiator, Christopher Hill, to lead the talks, and gave him the latitude no one had in the first term to conduct real and bilateral discussions with the North.
Rice's closeness to the President may have given her more leeway than her predecessor, Colin Powell, ever had. The personal attacks on Kim Jong Il also have been toned down. "You no longer heard comments about tyrants and pygmies," notes Joseph Cirincione, an arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It may seem to be a small matter, but it's very important diplomatically."
Cirincione is cautiously optimistic that the announcement of the agreement shows that relations between Washington and Pyongyang have improved enormously, providing some needed momentum for the ongoing talks. But he and other analysts acknowledge that hammering out the final details will be daunting.
SAVING FACE. For example, the North would have to destroy an arsenal of bombs it has considered a critical deterrent. "I'm not optimistic we can somehow diplomatically get them to give them up," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
Stumbling blocks could pop up before it even gets to that point. The North will be required to disclose to inspectors detailed information about a uranium-enrichment program it has denied having. Admitting it lied would entail a huge loss of face. The U.S. for its part will have to talk about a light-water reactor "at an appropriate time," according to the communiqué, but Pritchard believes the Administration will never say that time has come.
This could lead to the same kind of charges leveled under the Agreed Framework. The U.S. said the North had a hidden enrichment program that violated the pact, while the North said the U.S. dragged its feet on the reactor and never moved toward normalizing relations.
FEWER BOMBS. So is the new deal worthless? Not necessarily. The Agreed Framework was flawed, but it froze the reprocessing of fuel for eight years. That means dozens of bombs weren't made.
If the two sides manage to cut even a less-than-perfect deal, it could impede the North's work on an arsenal for a few more years, reducing the number of bombs that would otherwise have been made.
This new accord in the end may not be much better than the Agreed Framework. But being just as good may not be so bad.
Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek