Now putatively ruled by the young and untested son of Kim Jong Il, North Korea continues to be “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill once famously described the former Soviet Union.
So all we can do is speculate about the meaning of the news that Pyongyang is looking to resume its old game of WMD blackmail—in other words, we’ll stop producing bad stuff for a while if you give us food.
Still, one thing is clear: The announcement on Wednesday that the North has agreed to suspend nuclear weapons tests and enrichment and permit visits by international inspectors in exchange for food aid follows an old pattern, a resumption of the norm that may indicate, perhaps, that the internal politics of the country have somewhat settled after the long illness of Kim Jong Il.
The deal marks the resumption of a game the North Koreans have been playing since the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era pact under which the North was to get 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil each year and billions of dollars' worth of civilian nuclear equipment in return for freezing and "eventually" dismantling its plutonium program.
President Clinton, in the end, failed to quash the elder Kim’s nuclear program. But he had little choice. Even the George W. Bush administration, after denouncing the Clinton deal with Pyongyang, eventually came around to the idea that the North Korean regime wasn’t about to collapse after all, and it might be better to trade off proliferation for a little food and aid. In early 2007, President Bush did an about-face and embraced his own fuel-for-nukes accord with North Korea, a member of his notorious "Axis of Evil." ("There's a little bit of tripping over earlier rhetoric," Michael Green, the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in Bush's first term, admitted to me at the time.)
That pact fell apart too, apparently as a power struggle ensued in Pyongyang. Under Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried a policy of “strategic patience,” refusing to offer any new incentives to Pyongyang in order to induce it to return to nuclear-disarmament talks.
Yet this policy seemed to have little more success than past ones. Things grew only more tense, including open hostilities between North and South Korea in 2010. In recent months, the U.S. has lurched back toward diplomacy, mostly secretly. Just before Kim’s death in December, Pyongyang and Washington were reportedly set to hold meetings in Beijing on Thursday to discuss a possible resumption of the long-suspended “six-party” talks on the North's nuclear weapons program.
And now we have this. As long as the Kim regime remains in power, impoverished North Korea will need food and fuel and the rest of us will need them to stop building dangerous weapons. So the quixotic bid for the ultimate deal will go on, failure or not.