Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Balance, Progress In North Korean Issue

On balance, I believe the tentative deal with North Korea looking forward to a stand down in its nuclear weapons program represents a positive development for the Bush Administration and U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy in general.

Three noteworthy things happened after the North Koreans detonated a small nuclear device on Oct. 9.

First, the test itself was something of a fizzle, with the explosion being smaller than perhaps the North Koreans had planned and hoped for. This may have shown them that they weren't as far along in developing a workable atomic weapon as they had thought.

Second, the Chinese government's reaction was quite negative. China joined in the moderate sanctions that were adopted at the U.N., it joined the banking sanctions in Macao that the U.S. had encouraged, and it apparently cut some military aid to North Korea and threatened further cuts. All this showed that the Chinese, like the Bush Administration and the Japanese, were concerned about the prospect that North Korea could become a full fledged nuclear power.

Third, the U.S. abandoned its policy of not talking to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il directly. The Administration sent its able lead negotiator, Christopher Hill, to Berlin to talk bilaterally with the lead North Korean negotiator, and out of this precedent-setting meeting came the bare bones agreement that has now been reached in the six-party talks in Beijing.

Anything can happen. Past agreements with the North Koreans have not proved lasting. But in this case, the North Koreans stand to receive quite a bit more in aid, in oil and so on, if they honor their assurance that their main nuclear plant will be shut down within 60 days and let in U.N. inspectors to verify that it has been. Further steps, such as disassembly of present nuclear weapons and/or turning them over to international bodies, have not been ruled out.

It could well be that once Kim Jong Il begins moving in a more peaceful direction, the pressures on his regime will build to undertake even more reforms. North Korea, to put it mildly, has not been an economic success. Like East Germany in 1989, once the ice is broken, pressures may well build up on the regime for even more substantive change. In this respect, South Korea, Japan and China can all be helpful to the U.S.

Once it became obvious that the Bush Administration was in no mind to undertake military action to block North Korea becoming a nuclear power, then some such deal was probably in the cards, and we now have to wait to see what happens next.

It also should be recognized that what happens with North Korea may have some impact on the relations of the U.S. and other Western countries with Iran in respect to its nuclear plans.

Just this morning, at his news conference, President Bush joined the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Pace, in distancing himself somewhat from anonymous U.S. military briefers in Baghdad over the weekend who had suggested that senior members of the Iranian government were responsible for the alleged use of Iranian weapons, such as roadside bombs and other anti-tank devices, against American forces in Iraq.

It could well be that, just as Hill's contact with the North Koreans proved useful in Berlin, some mid level bilateral diplomatic exchanges may soon get underway between the U.S and Iran, looking forward at least to stemming tensions that have been building up between the U.S. and Iran in the Iraq war and elsewhere in the Middle East.

One place to watch is Lebanon. If Iran backs off there, and Hezbollah suspends or lessens its efforts to depose the Siniora government, it could be viewed as an introductory positive step. But yesterday's bombing of a bus carrying civilians in Lebanon, the first such attack, was ominous. Also, of course, the doings of the Iraqi radical, Moktada al-Sadr, who reportedly has gone to Iran, bear watching.

--

The departure of Vernon Loeb, an investigative editor at the L.A. Times, to return to the Philadelphia Inquirer as metro editor is another sign that under Tribune ownership, and all the uncertainties about the Times future that that entails, the paper is losing key personnel and sinking. Tribune did enter into one sale this week, that of Hoy, its Spanish-language paper, in New York. But it has not proceeded expeditiously as yet to make other sales, and its stock price continues a slow decline. Unless the Times is sold soon, the departures of John Balzar, Alissa Rubin and now, Vernon Loeb, will only be followed by others.

Loeb was a leader in the Times city room in trying to fashion reforms at the paper. He was a strong and outspoken supporter of the ousted editor, Dean Baquet. Under the circumstances, we can only wish him well at the Inquirer.

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