World Watch: From N. Korea, a hazy no-nuke vow
North Korea's pledge Monday to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, rejoin the international treaty governing nuclear nonproliferation, and accept the inspection safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency breaks new ground and represents the most hopeful development since a crisis over the North's atomic ambitions erupted nearly three years ago. But whether the six-nation statement released in Beijing means that the North will actually rid itself of all nuclear materials remains unclear.
The six-point agreement came on the seventh day of talks in the Chinese capitaltalks that last week seemed primed to fail when Pyongyang, ever unpredictable in its negotiating tactics, declared that the United States would need to provide it with a light-water nuclear power reactor in any overall nuclear deal. The Bush administration flatly rejected that, and no other country participating in the negotiationsSouth Korea, Japan, Russia, and Chinaaccepted the demand either. The North Korean gambit seemed to dash initial optimism, and the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, had implied that the talks would be recessed after Monday.
But amid feverish behind-the-scenes bargaining over the weekend, the final wording of a Chinese-drafted statementwith the North Korean promiseemerged. The United States affirmed that it has no intention to attack the North and recognizes its sovereignty. It also vowed to "take steps" to normalize relations with North Korea. Further, the United States joined with other countries in stating its willingness to provide energy aid to Pyongyang; South Korea earlier offered to provide 2 million kilowatts of electric power, an announcement in July that seemed to prod North Korea into rejoining nuclear negotiations that had been halted for more than a year.
Earlier this year, North Korean officials suggested that their nuclear "deterrent" was a permanent fact of life, and they openly declared their possession of nuclear weapons for the first time. Analysts believe the North has enough plutonium for perhaps six atomic bombs. So their unambiguous pledge on Monday to leave the nuclear weapons business marked an important reversal, of sorts. The North also, in the end, backed away from its demand for a light-water nuclear reactorthe sort of power-generation plant once envisioned in an agreement that ended an earlier nuclear crisis, that one in the 1990s.
But the Monday joint statement marked some cautious movement by the Bush administration, too. U.S. officials, including President Bush, had already been consciously muting their rhetoric about the North's communist government and its ruler, Kim Jong Il. Bush even inserted the word "Mister" in front of Kim's name in recent remarks. The Monday accord more directly commits the United States to help the North with energy than before. And it agreed to discuss providing the North with a light-water reactor at "an appropriate time," which Hill later said meant after all North Korean nukes and nuclear programs are verifiably eliminated. He also said the United States would raise testy issues over human rights, missiles, and illegal trafficking activities as it discusses normalization with the North Koreans.
Though undeniably a step forward, the statement leaves the hardest part to come. Negotiators will meet again in November to begin figuring out how to implement it in practical terms. Verifying the North's denuclearizationwith highly intrusive inspections and other surveillancewill test the secretive Pyongyang regime's desire to see a successful outcome to the talks. The countries participating in the talks differ on how far North Korea has gotten in its nuclear weapons work. And with so much distrust on both sides, the sequencing of U.S. and North Korean actions will likely be a source of considerable dispute in the next round of talks. The agreement anticipates a pattern of simultaneous moves: putting the new promises into practice with an approach of "commitment for commitment, action for action."
That is the languageand the mentalityof diplomacy. As Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues, "It is a victory for the 'Libya model' over the 'Iraq model': End threats by changing a regime's behavior, not by eliminating the regime." If the newly refreshed diplomacy on North Korea can be made to work, an administration already overtaxed by military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan may be able to avoid the same in northeast Asia.