The metric by which any diplomatic deal is judged is simple: Which side got more for less? By that measure, the U.S. and the Administration of President George W. Bush are the hands-down winners in the North Korean nuclear deal announced this week.
It might not look that way at first. North Korea's 60-page declaration of its nuclear capabilities is probably only mildly helpful. It may contain new information on how much plutonium it has produced for its weapons arsenal, or shed light on other aspects of its program. But unpacking North Korea's lies from any strands of truth is a lifetime's work.
What the U.S. did get, though, was real progress on a long-standing aim - the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where North Korea's plutonium has been produced. The 1994 deal agreed by the Clinton Administration required that nuclear work at Yongbyon be verifiably frozen, but the new deal requires that the plant be incapacitated. On Friday the North Koreans blew up the facility's cooling tower and they have also committed to destroying, under international monitoring, the other functioning parts of the plant.
Gary Samore of the Council on Foreign Relations, who negotiated the agreed framework in 1994 for President Clinton, says the new North Korean deal gets more than what he got on Yongbyon.
"The Bush Administration has achieved an additional measure beyond what the Clinton Administration achieved in terms of Yongbyon ... a very, very substantial disablement which would make it difficult and time-consuming for the North Koreans to resume production." Says his Council colleague Charles Ferguson, "The Bush Administration has achieved more than the Clinton Administration in terms of really doing a substantial amount of disablement of that facility."
And what did the U.S. give in order to achieve this? The primary chit handed over by the U.S. was to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That sounds important, but Pyongyang has been on that list for more than a decade solely for the purposes of negotiation.
The last act that could qualify as a sponsorship of terrorism by North Korea was its involvement in the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987, and diplomats have been dangling removal from the list for the better part of ten years as an inducement to give up some of their nuclear capabilities and information.
"The state sponsor of terror list is a very political list," says Ferguson, "From a technical standpoint they should have been taken off that list a long time ago." Most important, the only significant result of taking the North off the list is that the U.S. is no longer required by law to block international lending to Pyongyang. The U.S. still can, if it likes, block that lending given the control it has over such loans at the World Bank and elsewhere. "
If we learn 45 days from now that the North Koreans lied and cheated in their plutonium declaration," says Samore, "there's nothing that prevents the United States as a matter of policy from blocking loans."
None of which means the overall deal gets the U.S. free and clear of the North Korean nuclear threat. On the contrary, that threat is as bad as it has ever been, practically speaking. For starters, the North still has, by most estimates, between six- and ten-weapons worth of plutonium, obtained since the Bush Administration in 2001 abandoned negotiation in favor of confrontation. The U.S. has a long and hard road to negotiate that plutonium out of Pyongyang's hands. Just as bad, the North very likely has an equally threatening uranium-enrichment program separate from the plutonium program, and though no one knows where it is or how much, if any, highly enriched uranium it might be capable of producing.
Still, considering that U.S. negotiator Chris Hill has managed to get destruction of Yongbyan in exchange for the meaningless delisting, the U.S. and President Bush have made out quite well in this deal.