What are the details of North Korea's nuclear deal with the United States? 

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North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-il just had what the hipsters at VH1 might dub the "Best Week Ever."

Last week, the Dear Leader celebrated his 65th birthday with an over-the-top, nationwide, multiday celebration that makes me wonder if Kim hired Martha Stewart, Dr. Evil and Henry Kissinger to head his planning committee.

Among the highlights, last week saw the debut performance of a symphony titled "Glory To Kim Jong-il." I checked: iTunes doesn't have it yet.

Last Friday, a group described by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency as a "dancing party of youth and students" performed several dance numbers for the Dear Leader, including "May the Leader Receive Blessings from the People," "The Korean Nation Is Best" and "Our General Is Best."

Hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world apparently, visited the festival of Kimjongilia, a flower named for the Dear Leader. Quoth the KCNA, "The military attache of the Egyptian embassy here said that there are many flowers in the world but none of them is as beautiful as Kimjongilia." If Egypt's military attache to North Korea likes it, it must be lovely.

Kim's biggest birthday gift came from the unlikeliest of givers, President Bush.

On Feb. 13, the United States, along with China, South Korea and Russia, agreed to give Kim fuel and food aid worth about $400 million. In exchange, Kim's government has agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and open North Korea to international nuclear inspectors.

You may recall reading or hearing about a similar agreement in September 2005. So similar, in fact, that, when asked, the White House described last week's agreement as "the first step toward implementing" the 2005 agreement. In essence, this agreement agrees to reagree on what they've already agreed.

Implementation will proceed in stages. The more North Korea gives, the more fuel and food aid they'll get.

I describe the deal as a gift to Kim because, if implemented, the deal is effectively an admission by the Bush administration that its policy toward North Korea since January 2001 has been a failure. Since 2001, Bush's policy toward North Korea has been all stick and no carrot. The Bush policy was an explicit rebuke of Clinton's willingness to negotiate with North Korea, which the Bushies to this day criticize as all carrot and no stick.

The Bush administration's mistake all this time was to overestimate U.S. ability to simply scare Kim into doing what we wanted, while at the same time underestimating his ability to dangerously thumb his nose at us.

In 1994, when North Korea threatened to convert fuel from its nuclear power reactor into fuel for nuclear weapons, Clinton threatened North Korea by ordering a military buildup around the country, but he also offered negotiations. The result was the Agreed Framework of Oct. 21, 1994, in which North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear-weapons fuel program in exchange for fuel aid and two nuclear power plants that could not be used for weapons fuel.

Both sides failed to do what they promised (North Korea cheated and the United States didn't deliver the power plants), but the agreement nevertheless delayed North Korea's nuclear-weapons program by nearly a decade.

When Bush took office, he explicitly rejected the idea of negotiating with North Korea. He called Kim Jong-il a pygmy and called his country part of an "axis of evil," which North Korea interpreted as a threat of invasion.

When, in late 2002, North Korea threatened to once again convert fuel from its nuclear power plant into nuclear-weapons fuel, the Bush administration refused to negotiate seriously. North Korea kicked out international inspectors and proceeded full steam ahead on its nuclear program. North Korea now has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 nuclear weapons. Last October, it tested one.

Former Bush administration hardliners, such as John Bolton, are furious about the deal. They criticize the new Bush deal as a repeat of the 1994 Clinton agreement that they spent six years mocking. They're only half right. Giving aid in exchange for North Korea verifiably shutting down its nuclear-weapons fuel operation is exactly what Clinton gave Kim in 1994. The difference between then and now is that six years of phony tough talk and refusal to negotiate gave North Korea the time and the motivation to build a small nuclear-weapons stockpile that it's not likely to give up any time soon.


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