Leap Day in North Korea

Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Pyongyang is a modest success. But let's not get carried away.

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died late last year, analysts had no clear idea what the accession of his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, might mean for the Hermit Kingdom. On Feb. 29 this leap year -- appropriately enough -- we got an initial hint, when Pyongyang agreed to suspend work at the state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon that it had suddenly revealed to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist in November 2010, to halt nuclear and missile tests, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country after a three-year absence. The new deal with the United States, concluded in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid, will not eradicate the North Korean threat. It augurs well, however, for Kim Jong Un's foreign-policy smarts and will be seen internationally as a diplomatic victory for U.S. President Barack Obama.

The deal is no permanent solution because Pyongyang retains enough plutonium for four to 12 atomic bombs (with so many unknown variables, a more exact calculation is impossible). It is also presumed to be capable of producing more weapons using highly enriched uranium (HEU) at hidden facilities. North Korea has rebuffed Washington's demands to reveal the full scale of its enrichment program, but the 2,000-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon -- whose size and sophistication left visiting Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker "stunned" in 2010 -- was capable of producing a weapon's worth of HEU every year. Pyongyang has now relinquished that potential production.

North Korea's agreement to suspend nuclear and missile tests is also significant. Its two nuclear tests and three tests of medium-range ballistic missiles have all failed to one degree or another, so military leaders presumably want to conduct more to get the technology right. Kim will have less power to resist such military demands. Luckily for him, his father authorized negotiations with the United States that began shortly before the elder Kim's death in late December. After a hiatus for mourning, the talks resumed in February before producing this leap day's agreement.

This would be good news under any circumstances, but it is especially positive so soon after Kim came to power. Much media coverage has been devoted to the new leader's hands-on, smiley style in his inspection visits to military units and industrial sites, but this doesn't tell us much. In concluding this deal, however, he has parlayed Kim Jong Il's last diplomatic venture into his own success. He can justify his actions by saying he finished something his father began -- acting under his father's guidance -- while pulling an unexpected result out of the hat. This gives reason to hope that the military provocations that put the Korean Peninsula on the brink of war in 2010 may not be repeated this year.

The Obama administration is right in calling the agreement "important, if limited," but it is the first positive development in North Korea's program in four years. Undoubtedly, Republicans will find fault with the deal's level of transparency and the lack of any dismantlement of objectionable nuclear facilities. Questions will also be raised about who will benefit from the 240,000 tons of "nutritional assistance," the package's most controversial element.

Precautions have been taken to try to prevent this food aid from supplementing the rations of North Korea's disproportionately sized army -- at 1.2 million strong, the world's fourth-largest -- or being dished out at celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. High-protein supplements will be delivered rather than grain, and nearly 100 Korean-speaking American aid workers will monitor their distribution. No degree of oversight, however, can ensure that all the assistance will end up in the mouths of those most in need.

Tying food aid to policy choices presents moral complications. If people are starving, humanitarian principles hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used as a bargaining chip for political purposes. In this case, however, conditional food aid, in addition to benefiting some starving North Koreans, can contribute to the greater good of all countries in the region and beyond by reducing tensions and stopping advances in North Korea's strategic weapons systems. Without a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang may soon be able to threaten civilians in South Korea and Japan with a nuclear strike.

If the six-party talks are resumed, as now seems more likely after this deal, the United States and its Asian allies will seek full disclosure and dismantlement of the enrichment facilities so that North Korea's nuclear status can be restored to the status quo ante-2008, when all denuclearization steps were halted over disagreement on verification measures. Let's not get too excited: The requirements for strict verification could still scuttle the leap-day agreement. And despite the suspension steps, North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons altogether. Yet after four years of mounting tension on the Korean Peninsula, one good day for diplomacy is worth celebrating.



Above the Law

Pakistan's activist lawyers and judges may have thrown out Pervez Musharraf, but they're no democrats. In fact, they're a grave and growing threat to Pakistan's future.

Four years ago, the struggle of Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and the "Lawyers' Movement" against the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf appeared to many Western observers a clear-cut case of an independent judiciary defending democracy against a military dictator. Today, the chief justice, with the support of many lawyers, is still engaged in a struggle with the government, but now the goal is to prosecute the elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, for past corruption.

This might seem perfectly in order, because allegations of corruption against Zardari have been widespread and credible. His immunity from prosecution stems from a 2007 decree issued by then-President Musharraf as part of a U.S.-sponsored deal to allow Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, her husband, to return to Pakistan and form a coalition with Musharraf and the Army.

Yet the chief justice's actions -- both in trying to prosecute the president and in charging the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, with contempt of court for failing to cooperate with the prosecution -- also smack of an attempt to preempt democratic elections in Pakistan that are due within the next year. If these elections take place as scheduled, they will mark a significant milestone: the first time in Pakistan's history that an elected government has made it through to the end of its constitutional term without being overthrown.

Although Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will almost certainly suffer heavy losses in the parliamentary elections, it may do much better beforehand in indirect Senate elections, allowing the PPP -- and conceivably even the president -- to retain a large share of power. Many therefore suspect that Chaudhry's real motive is a political one: to force the government out before these elections. While the chief justice is doubtless sincere in his passionate commitment to the independence and power of the judiciary, he is also conservative in background and believed to be extremely hostile to cooperation between Pakistan and the United States, as well as the role of the Zardari administration in maintaining this cooperation. It is unclear whether Chaudhry is close to the main opposition party led by Nawaz Sharif, but some of his subordinate judges certainly are.

A senior Pakistani official told me this week that the standoff between the executive and judicial branches was just a process of jockeying for position as these institutions gradually work out their respective places in the new democratic order. But others see it as a continuation of the institutional and political instability that has racked Pakistan since independence in 1947 and that could sometime in the future contribute to another collapse of democracy and return of military rule.

In recent years, other developments have led liberals to question their previous support for the chief justice and the Lawyers' Movement. Most shocking was the public support of many lawyers for the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who in January 2011 was murdered by one of his own bodyguards for criticizing Pakistan's blasphemy law, which has been repeatedly misused in private feuds and the persecution of religious minorities. A previous chief justice of the Lahore High Court himself justified this murder to me in an interview last year on the grounds that "the laws of God take precedence over the laws of man."

Pakistani courts have also repeatedly failed to convict terrorism suspects, even when the cases against them seemed clear-cut. They overturned both a ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa -- the public face of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks -- and a detention order against its leader, Hafiz Saeed. In a recent case, they acquitted four Pakistani Taliban activists accused of an attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Lahore. As many Pakistanis have told them, this kind of verdict not only undermines the entire struggle against terrorism in Pakistan, but also encourages extrajudicial executions by the police and Army. In this case, all four men were promptly detained by the ISI under special anti-terrorism laws. And within a few weeks, all were dead under very suspicious circumstances.

These verdicts reflect in part both fear of the terrorists and the extreme incompetence of Pakistani prosecutors and police to draw up charges that will stick in court. Based on my meetings with some lawyers and judges, however, these judicial decisions often reflect deep hostility to the United States and the "war on terror" as well -- even when those being prosecuted have killed not Americans or Indians but fellow Pakistanis. In this, the judges and lawyers concerned are simply reflecting widespread feelings in the conservative middle class from which they are drawn. The clash between Chaudhry and Musharraf in 2007 originated in part with the chief justice's (legally justified) attempts to investigate Pakistani actions in handing over detained terrorism suspects to the United States. Several local leaders and supporters of the Lawyers' Movement whom I interviewed between 2007 and 2009 were extremely anti-American even by Pakistani standards, and they admitted that they were motivated to join the movement by outrage not just at the dismissal of the chief justice but also at Musharraf's action in storming the Red Mosque, an Islamist militant headquarters in Islamabad.

The chief justice and many of the lawyers have become extraordinarily autocratic and extremely bad at cleaning up their own house. Chaudhry has issued suo moto (of his own volition) verdicts dismissing state officials, overturning government economic policies, and intervening in executive decisions against which nobody else has brought legal charges.

Lower levels of the judicial system are even worse. During two out of my three recent visits to Lahore, lawyers in that city have been filmed beating up policemen who have testified against their clients in court -- and have then beaten up the television crews who dared to film them! Rarely are lawyers who break the law or openly forge their own certificates disbarred or even disciplined by their bar associations. The lower courts are notorious for their corruption, incompetence, and endless delays, and most Pakistanis loathe and fear them, preferring when possible either sharia law or the often brutal but quick, cheap, and accessible workings of local community justice.

This rather depressing story has a number of lessons. Firstly, Western news outlets and academics must examine yet again their chronic tendency to analyze developments in other countries according to simplistic Western frameworks and then assign the titles of "Goody" or "Baddy" to the participants. Yes, Pakistani reality is complex. But, then again, the United States (as well as Britain) has now been engaged in the war on terror -- and hence closely engaged with Pakistan -- for more than 10 years. That should have been sufficient time to develop greater knowledge and a more sophisticated analysis of Pakistan. Western journalists and analysts also need to break out of the trap of talking with educated Pakistani liberals who agree with them. The great Pakistani human rights lawyer and women's rights advocate Asma Jahangir, so often quoted in the Western media, is indeed a highly admirable figure. Unfortunately, she is not a highly representative figure as far as her profession is concerned.

Chief Justice Chaudhry, nonetheless, does still have widespread public support as a figure who represents some kind of check on the frequently awful workings of government (whether civilian or military) in Pakistan and the endless oppression and extortion meted out to ordinary Pakistanis by officials and the police. Chaudhry emerged as the most popular figure in the country in a Gallup poll in October 2011, with 16 positive points, though his score was down a third from the height of his popularity in 2007 and 2008 due to perceptions of his partisanship. This illustrates a deeper truth, which has also been apparent in the revolutions of the Arab Spring: the deep hunger of ordinary people across the Muslim world for greater justice. This yearning reflects not only their daily experiences of injustice, but also the core teachings of Islam.

On the one hand, Westerners must sympathize with these aspirations, echoing as they do past Western struggles against oppression. On the other hand, the desire of ordinary Muslims for justice is often linked both to a belief in the ideal, divinely inspired justice supposedly represented by sharia law and to a conviction that the Muslim world as a whole is the victim of injustice perpetrated by the West. We ignore these sentiments at great cost.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images