January 13, 2004 | Wall Street Journal

Plutonium Patsies

Give North Korea credit: Even the killer regime of Kim Jong Il has not managed to stamp out every last glimmer of creativity. Some of the most innovative diplomats hail from Pyongyang, where they have just introduced an intriguing new twist in the war on terror: nuclear tourism.

How else to describe North Korea's hosting last week of a private American group including such has-beens as former State Department envoy Charles “Jack” Pritchard and former Los Alamos director Sigfried Hecker, as well as Stanford China scholar John Lewis and two aides of Sens. Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden–all of whom should know better? Handpicked by Pyongyang, this group was brought in to tour that forbidden holy of holies, North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex. There they were reportedly invited to gaze upon what a Pyongyang spokesman described as North Korea's “nuclear deterrent force.” Most likely what they saw was some portion of Kim's already well-advertised plutonium hoard.

This select group of visitors, now a tourist attraction in its own right, has in recent days been wending its way home via Seoul and Tokyo. Next comes the Washington opening of this road show, at which point we may learn such thrilling details as whether Kim chose to display his isotopes in, say, a lead-glass case, like jewelry, or in more utilitarian housing, such as bombs.

But unless Kim threw in a true surprise–say, Osama bin Laden making his own tourist video by the Yongbyon cooling ponds–North Korea's arsenal is hardly news. Even back in the 1990s, U.S. intelligence was already estimating that Kim had a bomb or two, or at least the makings thereof. That was during the Clinton era, in which Jimmy Carter pioneered the practice of unofficial trips to arrange nuclear “peace” deals with Pyongyang, and came prancing home as father of the 1994 Agreed Framework. The way that worked was, the U.S. and its allies paid nuclear extortion in the form of food and fuel for Pyongyang, propped up Kim's regime, and began building him $4.6 billion worth of nuclear reactors.
In return, Kim lied and cheated on his promise to give up nuclear weapons; launched a program to enrich uranium for more bomb fuel; built, tested and sold missiles; and along the way starved to death some two million of his fellow North Koreans. When confronted by the Bush administration in late 2002 about his nuclear cheating, Kim's regime bragged about it, pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, announced it would go into overtime producing yet more bombs, and for good measure had a spokesman proclaim last March that “North Korean missiles can reach any part of the United States of America.” Now, with the same verve that brings back your neighborhood Mafia extortionist on his regular route, Kim wants another “peace” deal in which he'd get paid yet again for giving up weapons he already got paid for promising not to make in the first place.

And that's where our nuclear tourists come into the act. What North Korea has adroitly managed to showcase here is not just Kim's plutonium plant, but the opinions, for U.S. domestic consumption, of this select tour group–the plutonium patsies–who by virtue of having been tapped by Pyongyang for the world's most sinister sightseeing expedition are now presumed to be radiating expertise on how the U.S. should deal with North Korea. We can now expect the refrain, amplified through TV talk shows and maybe Senate hearings, that the U.S. must strike yet another deal for peace with Pyongyang–at almost any price.

To be more specific, we can expect the kind of prescription offered by Mr. Pritchard at a private Washington forum on North Korea last October, where he opined that requiring Pyongyang to do an honest deal was impractical, but why should that be an obstacle? Musing upon the possibility of another North Korean nuclear renunciation that might be, for instance, only 75% verifiable, he said, “I'll take it in a heartbeat.”

Fortunately, Mr. Pritchard is no longer is any official position to take anything. The problem with deals that are only 75% verifiable–whatever that means–is that the other 25% may end up being used in ways even more disturbing than as a North Korean government display of colorful handicrafts and political culture.
The real problem here is that no deal with North Korea will be verifiable, remotely dependable or worthy of the imprint of any U.S. administration, until we see the end of the real menace. That is not, in fact, the plutonium per se, but the totalitarian regime now turning it into a private peep show and demanding another payoff.

This is Kim setting the terms of the debate. And shamefully absent from the U.S. response, and most weirdly missing from the concerns of this deferential private tour group, is any serious interest in the basic, utterly ruthless and unscrupulous nature of the Pyongyang regime. Tour group member John Lewis was at pains to explain just how tractable Pyongyang was in arranging their trip: “We sent them a list of all our requests, and they honored all of those requests and we made additional ones, they honored all of those,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Had the Pritchard-Lewis-Hecker-Lugar-Biden cavalcade been seeking genuine answers and credibility, it is not chiefly Yongbyon and things nuclear-related they would have asked to see. We know Pyongyang has plutonium; North Korea even provided a sample to the International Atomic Energy Agency way back in 1992. And it was the peace-at-any-price negotiators of the 1990s, including Mr. Pritchard himself, who went along with allowing North Korea to store on the premises the old, spent reactor fuel from which plutonium could be extracted, rather than requiring it be shipped posthaste out of the country before any further deals went anywhere.

No, the real object of this group tour should more reasonably have been the huge system of slave labor and death camps by which Kim maintains in his country the Stalinist order that keeps him in power, and which he clearly hopes more U.S. deference and nuclear payoffs will help him preserve. Evidently these were not on Mr. Lewis's wish list, though they would have been easy enough to request. A report published last fall by human rights workers David Hawk and the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea would have served as a superb guidebook, complete with satellite photos pinpointing the locations of the camps, along with the names. Only when the North Korean gulag is opened up–in order to be shut down–only when North Korea becomes a society in which the government does not depend on lies and murder, will there be a prayer of any decent deal with the U.S. for peace.

For that, the best bet is for the U.S. to set its own terms for this debate. Whether by way of interdicting more North Korean missile shipments, leaning on China to cut off aid to North Korea's government and instead help its refugees, or perhaps even offering Kim the chance to retire Marcos-style to Hawaii before North Korea gets another cent, what the U.S. must avoid is another deal in which Washington pays Pyongyang not to make bombs. In effect, that creates a demand for bomb programs world-wide, the better to extort payoffs from the U.S. not to make even more.
If the nuclear tourists upon their homecoming manage to sway U.S. policy as Pyongyang clearly desires, the real price of the tickets for Mr. Pritchard and his fellow travelers will be will be paid by U.S. citizens and their allies, not only via millions more in tax dollars to support Kim Jong Il, but also in terms of an even more dangerous world.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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