Last week's agreement on North Korea's nuclear program has many critics. Those on the right have assailed the Bush administration for abandoning its core principles and setting a bad example for other states that misbehave (read: Iran) by rewarding North Korea's blackmail. They also maintain that the agreement is so vague and full of loopholes that North Korea will never adhere to it. Those on the Left, meanwhile, claim that the deal came too late and at too great a cost. They argue that the administration, blinded by its own ideology, scuttled the 1994 Agreed Framework only to sign a very similar deal six years later, after Pyongyang had restarted its nuclear program, quintupled its plutonium stockpile, increased its number of nuclear bombs from two to perhaps eight, and conducted a nuclear test.
There are elements of truth in both critiques, but there is no denying that the accord reached in Beijing marks a watershed moment for the Korean peninsula and, more broadly, for Northeast Asia.
Some of the reasons for this are clearer than others. For North Korea, the agreement represents its last and best shot at avoiding absolute isolation. If Pyongyang fails to adhere to the deal, it will infuriate Beijing, which served as host for the negotiations and whose prestige is now on the line. More important, China wants the nuclear issue resolved before the 2008 Olympics, especially after North Korea's nuclear test in October demonstrated how willing Kim Jong Il's regime is to jeopardize regional stability for its own benefit. If North Korea walks away now from a deal it signed with China, it will risk losing critical Chinese aid and prove to all parties, including South Korea, that it can never be trusted as a negotiating partner.
A more important reason that last week's agreement represents a watershed moment may not be as clear, however. Three years ago in Foreign Affairs ("How to Deal with North Korea," March/April 2003), we proposed that a nuclear deal with North Korea
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