Getting Rid of the Nukes

First thing, a short timetable to disable a nuclear reactor.

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Negotiators at the six-nation nuclear talks, including Ambassador Christopher Hill (second from right).

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North Korea has never been a notable fount of good news for U.S. foreign policy. But for an administration lacking in recent successes overseas, the reclusive leader of that nuclear-armed regime last week provided some welcome tidings, making his firmest commitment yet to continue down the road of nuclear disarmament.

As North Korea's Kim Jong Il hosted a historic summit with the South Korean president, Roh Moo Hyun, Kim's officials accepted an agreement that requires the North by year's end to disable nuclear facilities at its plutonium-producing reactor complex at Yongbyon and to deliver a "complete and correct declaration" of all its disputed nuclear assets.

If that hard-won progress is realized, the United States and other players in the six-nation denuclearization talks will turn their eyes next year to the real prize: the verified elimination of all of the North's nuclear materials and programs in return for energy and economic aid, security assurances, and, perhaps, full relations with its archfoe, the United States.

The mostly upbeat summit in Pyongyang yielded a pledge by Kim to "smoothly implement" disarmament arrangements, bolstering the sense that denuclearization has now gained some momentum. And yet, mutual suspicions still pervade the process, and whether the North will fully shed its nuclear programs is not a question that U.S. officials dare to answer definitively. "None of this process is based on trust," says a U.S. official.

New approach. The progress to date derives from a shift in the Bush administration's dealings with North Korea and that country's response to stepped-up international pressures. A year ago, the six-party talks were dealt a potentially fatal blow after Pyongyang conducted its first-ever nuclear test blast. Even the North's protective friends in China and Russia reacted angrily, and the United Nations Security Council ordered sanctions. China earlier cut off oil shipments to North Korea briefly. U.S. banking sanctions were also squeezing Pyongyang's access to international finance. And the nuclear stalemate was blocking the South Korean aid that the impoverished North counts on.

Even more dramatic has been the change in the Bush administration. Proponents of negotiation gained the upper hand over hawks favoring the North's isolation. "The U.S.," says Victor Cha, a Georgetown University scholar who resigned as the top Korea hand on the National Security Council in May, "is tugging on the negotiating thread harder."

Bush loosened the self-imposed ban on negotiating directly with North Korea to improve the odds of getting a deal. Washington agreed to end the banking sanctions that had enraged Pyongyang, even facilitating the return of suspect frozen funds to North Korea. The United States joined other nations willing to ship heavy fuel oil to the North in exchange for disarmament steps. And U.S. negotiators have started the process of removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Says the leading practitioner of the new pragmatism, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, "As in all negotiations, to get something you have to give something."

Still, last week's deal—at least in its public form—leaves some tough issues unanswered or deferred, making some uneasy. "It gives them a lot of leeway to go off in directions that aren't anticipated," says Joel Wit, a former State Department negotiator with the North.

Some of the arrangements Hill has made are apparently cloaked in secrecy. One issue not spelled out is what constitutes "disablement" at Yongbyon. Washington wants it to mean that nuclear gear would be altered enough that it would take a year to restore it to working order. North Korea has not publicly offered its own definition. Last week's agreement does not require North Korea to deal with any fissile material—perhaps up to a dozen bombs' worth of plutonium—or any bombs themselves by the end of the year. Nor does it tackle the disablement of any North Korean program to enrich uranium. The North Koreans deny such a program exists, but Hill insists they understand they must account for it. Finally, Hill will not reveal any timetable for taking North Korea off the terrorism list, a politically sensitive concession the details of which may be secret.