Experts are puzzled about why North Korea has admitted to its covert nuclear-weapons program. What irrational demons could be driving Kim Jong Il to make such a damaging concession?
There's much that is odd about Kim Jong Il: his authorship of six operas, his perm, his isolation that led The Economist magazine to headline a picture of him emerging for a summit meeting with the legend "Greetings, Earthlings!"
But the nuclear revelation is not at all strange. Kim Jong Il simply wants to prompt another bout of U.S.-supported arms control on the Korean peninsula.
Arms control has been a great boon for dictators the world over, especially the Clinton administration's 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. Since the first serving was so tasty, Kim Jong Il is understandably back -- in his obnoxious way -- asking for more.
Naiveté is built into the very DNA of arms control, as Henry Sokolski has argued in his history of arms control, "Best of Intentions."
The venerable Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for instance, is fatally starry-
eyed. It talks of "the inalienable right" of signatories to develop nuclear technology, and urges "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and technological information."
Cheating? Don't be silly. Sokolski quotes a Dutch NPT negotiator explaining that for parties to the treaty, there should be "a clear presumption" that nuclear material and know-how won't be diverted to weapons programs.
According to Khidhir Hamza, an Iraqi scientist who defected, Iraq used this presumption of innocence to build its massive nuclear program, with the International Atomic Energy Agency lending a hand.
Hamza writes: "Few of Iraq's suppliers -- or the IAEA itself -- ever bothered to ask a simple question: Why would Iraq, with the second-largest oil reserves in the world, want to generate electricity by burning uranium?"
Iran signed onto the NPT for the same reason. An official close to "supreme leader" Ali Khamenei said in a candid moment: "The reason that Iran becomes a signatory to international conventions is to pave the way for access to modern technology."
A circularity applies to all these agreements: They work so long as no one wants to violate them, in which case they simply don't work.
The danger is mistaking airy sentiments and assurances with reality. This was a mistake that the Clinton administration inflated almost to a strategic doctrine: Don't verify, if you can trust instead.
Pyongyang signed the NPT in 1987. By the early 1990s, it was clearly in breach of the agreement and had begun to stiff inspectors from the IAEA.
The Clinton administration's reaction was to reward North Korea by agreeing in 1994 to provide 500,000 tons a year of heating oil, undertake a general warming of relations and amazingly enough, build two light-water nuclear reactors.
This was justified on grounds that light-water reactors -- in contrast to heavy-water reactors -- are inappropriate for making weapons. But it's not so.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a light-water reactor "would routinely discharge in spent fuel as much as a few hundred kilograms of plutonium each year. If the fuel burn-up was reduced, perhaps during a national security crisis, the reactor could produce significant quantities of weapons-grade plutonium."
The safety of the reactors, in other words, is dependent on North Koreans not cheating -- their obvious penchant for which is what prompted the reactor giveaway in the first place.
But President Clinton was not willing to push too hard for the return of inspectors (which was supposed to be one of the points of the agreement), partly because that would risk blowing up all his negotiating handiwork.
So, North Korea got aid, and we settled for empty promises -- in a classic arms-control dynamic. After all of this, the Bush administration is still being urged to "engage" with the North.
Indeed, if promising to build two nuclear reactors didn't work, maybe we should offer four instead. And they say Kim Jong Il is crazy?