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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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This month has seen two arms stories with significant U.S. content grab headlines. While an agreement with North Korea over halting its nuclear program has been greeted mostly as a step forward, the U.S. plan to station parts of its missile defense system in Central Europe has had a rockier reception. In both cases, the story is more complicated than as reported.

On Feb. 16, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il celebrated his 65th birthday. While all of his birthdays have been feted with forced national celebrations, there must have truly been some relief this time, coming on the heels of an agreement that would grant North Korea some economic aid and fuel in return for cutbacks in its nuclear program. Unfortunately, with this progress in the Korean peninsula, arms control took a hit further west, as old Cold War rivalries threaten to reassert themselves between Russia and the United States.

After nearly four years of often tense and difficult meetings, the six-party talks, comprising China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the United States, came to a vaguely worded and yet promising agreement on Feb. 13. This followed the joint statement that was agreed upon by the participants in September 2005 but which was almost immediately derailed by disputes rising from the United States' freezing of North Korean funds in a Macau bank. The move followed accusations that North Korea was laundering money and counterfeiting U.S. currency.

This month's agreement was aimed at working around that issue. It started off with the note that all parties "reaffirmed their common goal and will to achieve early denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner." It then went on to say that North Korea would shut down its controversial Yongbyon nuclear reprocessing plant and bring back in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The other parties to the talks would, within 60 days, initiate an emergency shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. Furthermore, the United States and North Korea would sit down in bilateral talks and Pyongyang would be taken off Washington's list of state sponsors of terror. Additionally, Japan and North Korea will sit down for bilateral talks to work out "outstanding issues of concern," namely Japanese citizens who have been kidnapped by North Korean agents over the years.

For the second phase, North Korea is supposed to declare completely all its nuclear programs and disable all existing nuclear facilities, after which it is supposed to receive an additional 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

This agreement was almost immediately lambasted by conservatives in the United States, including that bastion of unilateralism, John Bolton, who left the position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations a mere two months ago. Critics fear that this is caving in to North Korea or, as Bolton put it, "rewarding bad behavior."

This attitude, however, is exactly what got us into this predicament in the first place. When U.S. President George W. Bush took office, North Korea was a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and was suspected of having, perhaps, one nuclear weapon. The Bush administration's policy has been not to offer anything until North Korea had completely and verifiably disarmed its nuclear program. As a result, while the six party talks limped on, North Korea had the opportunity to build up enough nuclear materials for a possible 10 nuclear weapons, pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and held a nuclear test last October. The Clinton policy was clearly not perfect but the situation rapidly devolved over the past five years. The game plan needed changing.

But this is not the only political wind that is shifting. Last week, Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff, said Russia could pull out of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. He warned: "There is the possibility of leaving the agreement if one of the sides presents convincing evidence."

While it has been presented as a response to the proliferation of missiles worldwide, there very likely could be a more specific cause for this speculation. His words come one month after the United States officially announced that it was working to place interceptors for its missile defense system in Poland and a related radar complex in the Czech Republic. This proposal has incensed those who see the missile defense system as a threat, instead of the shabby, incomplete system that isn't expected to be in place until 2012 at the earliest. More important, the U.S. missile defense system has made a successful intercept in six out of 11 attempts, and these were under highly scripted, unrealistic circumstances. It could never come close to countering Russia's still-massive nuclear deterrent.

The unilateral withdrawal by Russia from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, while perhaps an ironic payback for the United States' abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, would do little to enhance Russia's national security. Instead, it would make the existing world order even more precarious, as it would be difficult to argue that other countries should give up their ballistic missile programs when one of the biggest existing arsenals refuses to do so.

And while the agreement this month with North Korea is a step in the right direction, it is by no means a guarantee. While Western news agencies have been reporting that the Yongbyon plant will be shut down permanently, the official North Korean news agency has been claiming that it will be done so temporarily. While global nonproliferation efforts can reasonably claim a small victory with this agreement, the battle is not over.

Victoria Samson is a research analyst for the Washington-based nonpartisan Center for Defense Information.