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Why the North Korea nuclear moratorium means next to nothing

Today is leap day, but you can be forgiven if you mistook it for Groundhog Day—especially the Hollywood version starring the memorable Bill Murray in which the same day repeats itself over and over again.

The Obama administration’s announcement Wednesday that North Korea has agreed to play nice is the same joke that was played on us by the president's two predecessors in the White House

The inevitable outcome—failure—will also seem oddly familiar.

The State Department announced Tuesday that North Korea agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons testing. In return, the U.S. has to arrange for food aid and forgo “hostile intent” toward the regime. 

Also on tap are more six-way talks, which include North Korea, its neighbors and the United States.

This may not sound bad on its face. After all, isn’t it good news that North Korea is halting uranium enrichment and returning to negotiations? Unfortunately, not really.

First of all, North Korea has previously agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid, only to cheat on the deal, renege on the promise and pocket the aid. 

This is what happened under the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration. 

This is what happened under six-party talks during the George W. Bush administration. North Korea agreed to denuclearization in 2004 and 2007, among other occasions. And yet somehow the country still tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

Second, North Korea’s biggest threat to us is not an unlikely (though not impossible) nuclear or conventional assault on South Korea or Japan. Instead, it is proliferation of WMD know-how and materiel to others. North Korea has a history of doing this even when it is theoretically behaving. 

In early 2007, we supposedly reached a breakthrough with North Korea to end its nuclear program. Yet later that year, Israel was compelled to bomb a nuclear facility in Syria that North Korea helped to build.

Third, even if North Korea complies with its promise, its nuclear program and status continue. Not covered by Wednesday’s suspension is the country’s plutonium program, which was the basis for its two nuclear tests. Also, even if Pyongyang halts uranium enrichment, it can still use any existing uranium for bombs. In fact, it’s easier to field a uranium bomb than a plutonium one, assuming you have the material.

Fourth, our aid will prop up the regime instead of helping average North Koreans. 

The many North Korean defectors and refugees with whom I have spoken over the years have said to a man that average hungry North Koreans never received any of the massive food aid from the last two decades. Instead it gets diverted to the military and the regime elite, or it gets monetized on the black market.

Therein lies Pyongyang’s true motive. 

The destitute North Korean economy needs foreign aid to avoid collapse. North Korea follows a now clear cycle of ostentatiously dangerous conduct followed by a conciliatory gesture that brings its neighbors and the U.S. rushing to the negotiating table, bearing goodies. 

Pyongyang pockets the aid, never delivers the goods, and then restarts the cycle with more bad behavior. 

While this goes on, Pyongyang also lines its pockets with the proceeds from proliferation and illicit activities like counterfeiting pharmaceuticals, knowing that diplomats on both sides of the Pacific will look the other way to keep talks going. 

Like a performing seal, the Obama administration is now being cued back to the table, bearing gifts.

Perhaps the worst part of today’s announcement is the least-noticed part: the agreement that the U.S. does not have “hostile intent” toward North Korea and will proceed “in the spirit of mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.” That is a half-clever way of saying that the Obama administration accepts the legitimacy of the North Korean dictatorship. 

Practically, it means we will do nothing to help North Koreans free themselves from the world’s most repressive government.

This means forgoing the most practical method of improving our national security. Rather than seek the deal of the century from Pyongyang—which we should now know it will never deliver—we should seek a North Korea free of the Kim regime.

Instead of providing aid, we should pressure the regime, cut off its access to money, quarantine it from proliferation, and aid defectors and regime opponents as we did with the formerly captive nations of the Soviet Bloc. 

The regime particularly hates defector radio broadcasts because they challenges the Kim regime’s total control of information, on which it relies to keep power. 

For example, Pyongyang jams and otherwise targets Free NK Radio more than any other broadcast, because it carries inspiring programming by North Koreans who have escaped and who tell the truth about North Korea and the outside world.

Then there's the other pressure point: China

Our Washington foreign policy establishment consistently argues that Beijing shares our interest in keeping nuclear weapons out of North Korean hands. But Beijing never seriously pressures Pyongyang to disarm and supports the regime with trade and direct assistance. 

Beijing will only act when it sees North Korean misconduct harm its own security. This will only be clear when we end the drawdown of our Navy and Air Force and put tactical nuclear weapons back on our submarines in the Pacific to offset the emerging North Korean threat.

Of course, taking on our foreign policy establishment and changing our approach to North Korea will not happen with the Obama administration in office. 

Mr. Obama’s attempt to embrace our adversaries, which began with Iran and Russia, has now made its way to the Korean Peninsula. And like his two predecessors in the White House, he will opt for a feel-good disarmament agreement rather than real security.

Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights, and is currently a senior adviser to the Newt Gingrich presidential campaign. He is a principal at DC International Advisory and a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion.

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).