November 5, 2007
If you’re trying to measure any positive achievements that may have been accomplished in the Six Party talks seeking to disarm North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, it’s helpful to remember Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip.
Each year, as football season began, Peanuts fans saw Lucy hold a football upright for would-be place-kicker Charlie Brown to run up and kick. But — no matter how many elaborate promises to the contrary — every time Charlie ran up to the ball, Lucy pulled it away at the last minute. Poor Charlie was left flailing in the air and flat on his back. Each year it was the same, with Lucy promising this time it would be different and Charlie believing her despite Lucy’s long record of broken promises. It became clear to most readers that Lucy simply could not be trusted to perform as promised and Charlie would never learn from his experiences. He was simply doomed to repeatedly suffer the same consequences.
A similar historical theme has prevailed in US/North Korea relations and, most recently, the Six Party talks. For just as the North Koreans have done so many times before in making international agreements to curtail aggressive behavior, like Lucy, they always “pull the ball away,” failing to abide by their promises.
The Six Party talks began in 2003 as a result of North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To date, six rounds of talks have taken place, with the first four bearing no fruit. Only the third phase of the fifth round of these talks, held in February 2007, yielded hope North Korea might shed its historic role of playing “Lucy” to America’s “Charlie Brown.” Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel assistance and normalized relations with the US. While specific terms were incorporated into the agreement including a deadline for compliance, so too were some very objective requirements. An example of the former was North Korea’s commitment to disclose all its nuclear activities and disable its facilities; an example of the latter was its commitment — along with the other participants — to implement positive steps to increase mutual trust.
The first deadline provided for in the agreement was never met as Pyongyang imposed new stumbling blocks. And, in September, evidence came to light that Pyongyang had undertaken an initiative in direct contravention of its obligation to enhance mutual trust.
On September 6th, Israeli aircraft attacked a target under construction in Syria. Surprisingly, both Israel and Syria remain tight-lipped about the incident. Some details have emerged. Unsure of the purpose of the construction activity, Israeli commandos went into Syria to find out. They gathered soil samples near the site which were found to be radioactive; boxes and equipment bore Korean markings. It was clear Pyongyang had once again deceived the US by having agreed to disarm its nuclear capability, only to covertly relocate it to Syria.
Interestingly, while Pyongyang sought to deceive the US, the US acted to enhance “mutual trust” with Pyongyang. When a North Korean merchant ship came under attack by pirates off the Somali coast on October 30, a US warship in the vicinity came to her aid. Two pirates were killed in the ensuing engagement, after which the US ship then rendered medical assistance to injured Korean crew members. The North Korean ship was then allowed to go on her way.
The US and South Korea have taken positive steps towards North Korea to follow up on peaceful initiatives and demonstrate good will. Pyongyang has yet to reciprocate, repeatedly following up such positive steps with negative ones of its own. Even the simplest of commitments — Kim Jong Il’s promise to hold a second summit in Seoul after South Korean President D. J. Kim’s historic meeting with him in Pyongyang in 2000 — went unfulfilled. The only way a second summit eventually was held was when D. J. Kim’s successor, once again, traveled to Pyongyang. (Kim Jong Il apparently believes the mountain must come to Mohammad as Mohammad doesn’t go to the mountain.)
Readers of Peanuts, over time, came to realize Lucy was incapable of doing what she promised and Charlie Brown was, for some reason, incapable of understanding this. Many observers of US/North Korean relations have come to realize, over time, Pyongyang is incapable of meeting commitments and the US, for some reason, is incapable of understanding this, constantly subjecting itself to ridicule. It is time for the US and other Six Party talk participants to recognize there is no hope for North Korea taking positive steps to disarm absent regime change. Unless this happens, the only change in Pyongyang’s conduct we can expect is the nature of its deceit.
James Zumwalt is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War. He has been to North Korea 10 times.