I am beginning to understand how the US-DPRK “Leap Day Deal” came apart .

You have to hand it to the North Koreans.  They screwed the Obama Administration.

But the Obama Administration didn’t do itself any favors, either.

1.

To understand what happened, the most important observation relates to process.

I had, somewhat carelessly, assumed that the unilateral DPRK and US statements represented some sort of agreement — not least because overeager officials called it the Leap Day Deal.  A deal, however, is something one negotiates — which is to say actual human beings sit in a little room and argue about specific words to appear on paper.  In theory, that process allows the two parties to determine that they really are in agreement.  But that isn’t what happened at all!

Rather, the process went something like this. Glyn Davies and Ford Hart show up at the Westin in Beijing on February 22 for “bilateral exploratory talks” with Kim Gye Gwan et al on February 23.  The talks go surprisingly well — the two sides talk for six and half hours that Thursday, including a substantive dinner.

They meet again on the morning of February 24 for another couple of hours, before the US side lunches with Wu Daiwei and then heads home.  One of the officials, probably Davies, will later describe the unexpectedly long meeting with the North Koreans as “extra innings.” You can recreate the agenda yourself by looking at the press statements by Davies on 22, 23 and 24 (am|pm) February, with an assist from the 29 February background briefing.

Now, Davies and Kim do not reach an agreement in Beijing, nor do they draft any kind of agreed statement.  Before Davies heads home (with obligatory stops in Seoul and Tokyo), a reporter asks him whether the parties achieved a “breakthrough.”  Davis says:
“Oh my goodness, no. I think the word breakthrough goes way too far, folks. I wouldn’t want anyone using the word breakthrough.”

And then Leap Day happens.

On February 29, the North Koreans issue a statement that basically summarizes the discussion Beijing, ending with this little zinger:

The DPRK, upon request by the U.S. and with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere for the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Nyongbyon and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.

Now, of course, the DPRK agreed to no such thing in Beijing. More on  that in a moment.

The Administration responds with simultaneously releases its own statement (the time stamp on the US statement is actually slightly before that on the KCNA item), presumably the sort of things that the US had indicated might be forthcoming if the DPRK took what US officials called “pre-steps.”  (Apparently, only the Bush Administration insisted on preconditions for negotiations.)

2.

The DPRK and US statements, however, contain significant differences.

Some reporters immediately notice those differences and start asking questions in both a 29 February background briefing and in Toria Nuland’s 1 March press briefing. One reporter, for instance, asks the anonymous senior official, probably Davies, why the DPRK statement didn’t make any reference to the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.  Senior Official One say he doesn’t know:

The negotiating record’s clear on that. We did talk about that. We expect that the IAEA will also confirm the disablement of that reactor and associated facilities. I can’t speak to why they didn’t include it; these were, after all, unilateral statements that each side made, and that is an issue that we will clearly have to come back on. But there’s no doubt in our mind that they’ve agreed to that, and we will expect that that will be addressed … [Emphasis added.]

Let’s look at that claim again: “I can’t speak to why they didn’t include it; these were, after all, unilateral statements that each side made, and that is an issue that we will clearly have to come back on.” The State Department official is really saying “I don’t  have the slightest idea what the North Koreans statement means.  You’d have to ask the North Koreans.  I know what we want it to mean.  I guess, now that you mention it, we may need to ask them about that.”

The North Koreans, on the other hand, seemed to know exactly what they meant, which is probably why they omitted “of any kind” from the statement.  Why the US side didn’t notice it, I can’t explain.

3.

Now, Administration officials are screaming to high heaven that Davies told the North Koreans that a space launch was a missile launch.  The Nelson Report, the irreplaceable daily record of US Asia policy, has one official after another making that point very, very clear.  One Obama Administration official told Nelson that “in the process of negotiating the Feb. 29 agreement, Special Envoy Amb. Glyn Davies, and Ford Hart, explicitly, directly warned DPRK lead-negotiator Kim Gye-gwan that any missile test, for any purpose, would violate the terms of the agreement under negotiation…”

The problem is that telling the DPRK is not the same thing as the DPRK agreed.

Kim Gye Gwan, for example, can say exactly the same thing: “in the process of negotiating the Feb. 29 agreement, Special Envoy [Kim Gye Gwan ] explicitly, directly warned [US] lead-negotiator [Glyn Davies] that any missile test, for any purpose, would [not] violate the terms of the agreement under negotiation.”  In fact, the DPRK now has a statement that says precisely that:

The DPRK’s satellite launch is an issue quite different from the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement. The DPRK had already consistently clarified at the three rounds of the DPRK-U.S. high-level talks that the satellite launch is not included in the long-range missile launch.

The statement released by North Korea on February 29 carefully omits the agreed language from 1999 — of any kind –  that probably expressed the equivalence of space and missile launches. That should have been a signal.

4.

You have to hand it to the North Koreans.  They’ve backed the Obama Administration into a quite a corner.

The US claimed that the “nutritional assistance” — what the hell is wrong with the phrase “food aid” anyway? — was not linked to the outcome Six Party Talks. The IAEA has inspectors packing their suitcases for spring in Yongbyon at the invitation of the DPRK.

Does the US blow this up over one stupid rocket launch? It’s not a very pretty state of affairs, is it?

What’s amazing is that the senior officials from the Obama Administration still don’t get it.  One Administration official told Chris Nelson that “The DPRK delegation left Beijing without a scintilla of doubt that a satellite test would doom this entire process…”

This word “scintilla.”  I am not sure it means what you think it does.

The DPRK delegation understood the US position, but the DPRK leadership just calculated it might get both the satellite launch and enough Plumpy’nut  to keep Kim Jong Un at his fighting weight.  The DPRK leadership probably concluded that there wasn’t much downside, even if the Administration wasn’t bluffing, given that collapsed negotiations usually end in a DPRK nuclear test, followed by another round of negotiations.

The Administration’s mistake here was not to try to reach an agreement with North Korea, but for thinking it was this easy.  Just blow into Beijing, lay down the law, have a nice dinner with Kim Gye Gwan and then hit Seoul and Tokyo on the way home.  And don’t forget to pick up a new tie for the Nobel Prize ceremony.

In both briefings on 29 February and 1 March, Administration officials were just too confident to notice all the discrepancies that reporters were pointing out.  Here is a rather lengthy exchange between a reporter and Nuland that captures that confidence.  Emphasis, as always, is mine:

QUESTION: Yeah. Going back to the subtle differences between the two statements, your statement says that the North Koreans will stop nuclear activities generally speaking. And then they say that they’ll stop uranium enrichment specifically. Is plutonium activity also a part of this? Is that your understanding?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Have you – you’ve read our statement, right?

QUESTION: Yes, I have. But their – the North Koreans say they’ll stop uranium enrichment. They don’t say anything about plutonium. So I’m wondering if there – is there any disagreement here or is this – what’s your understanding?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have their statement in front of us, but are you talking about the part about the five-megawatt –

QUESTION: It’s the – basically the last section of their statement says: “agreed to moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity.” Whereas your statement says that: “agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile test, nuclear test, and nuclear activities at Yongbyon.” So –

MS. NULAND: Including uranium enrichment activities.

QUESTION: Including uranium enrichment activities. So I’m asking, is plutonium part of this agreement as well?

MS. NULAND: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. NULAND: Most definitely.

QUESTION: Follow up on that?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: So there’s some differences in statements issued by both sides. So are you ready to meet with North Koreans again to qualify the difference, or do you expect that this type of issue might be brought up in the next meeting with North Koreans on the nutritional aid?

MS. NULAND: No. As we clarified in the background briefing that we gave yesterday – and I would refer you to it if you didn’t get a chance to participate – the next step on the nuclear side with regard to the commitments that are made by both sides in these statements is that they now need to be implemented by the North Korean side and that implementation needs to be verified by the, So we are looking to the DPRK, as a next step, to invite the IAEA in to verify that all the steps that we’ve agreed upon, all the steps you see reflected in the U.S. statement, are, in fact, being implemented. So that’s the next step on that side.

With regard to nutritional assistance, we do still have a little bit of technical work to do and we’re going to try to do it through existing channels before we can ship.

QUESTION: So you don’t see the need to clarify the difference at this point?

MS. NULAND: We don’t see any difference. The only thing that is effectively sort of left out, if you will, with regard to the DPRK’s statement is this issue of the five-megawatt reactor, and from our perspective, the U.S. and the DPRK both know that the DPRK agreed that the IAEA would be allowed in to confirm the disablement of the five-megawatt reactor and associated facilities. So that’s something that we’re expecting also to be on the list when the IAEA goes to North Korea.

To get the full effect, watch the briefing starting at 32:10.  Nuland just isn’t prepared for the issue of discrepancies.

Remember, the DPRK signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that prohibited the possession of “nuclear reprocessing facilities.”  That was on February 19, 1992.  On May 20, 1992, South Korean officials confronted the DPRK officials about the continued construction on Yongbyon.  DPRK officials explained that it was not a reprocessing facility, but a “radiochemical laboratory” for research purposes.

You have to have the DPRK statement in front you.  The details matter.

5.

The politics of this are, of course, terrible.  If the Administration doesn’t collapse what remains of the deal — and there are some useful pieces left including the possibility of an IAEA presence at Yongbyon — they are going to get killed in the press.

Of course, the North Koreans have plenty of options for mischief, including testing a Musudan IRBM or perhaps this road-mobile ICBM of lore.  And then there is always the option to blow a little more plutonium.  Maybe they want to try out an HEU bomb.  And of course they can always sink a South Korean warship, shell an island or revive some of their nasty habits from the 1970s.  Really, the possibilities are endless.

Had things gone down differently — had North Korean conducted the satellite launch for Kim Il Sung’s birthday, then announced compliance with the pre-steps — that might have worked.  A blanket exception for space launches is a problem, of course, but what’s one measly Unha launch among parties to an armistice?

Then again, if you can launch your rocket, embarrass Barack Obama and then gorge yourself on therapeutic food products, well that’s seems like the best option to me.

6.

By the way, I notice that the Boston Herald published an op-ed by Peter Brookes titled, “N. Korea welshes on food aid deal.”

Usually, the author doesn’t write the headline, so to whoever chose that slur: go to hell.