Hold the Applause
The North Korea nuclear deal is a breakthrough of sorts but leaves tough issues to be resolved later
Last week's nuclear deal with North Korea, said a smiling Condoleezza Rice, took "patient, creative, and tough diplomacy." All true, but the secretary of state's upbeat summary masked an array of obstacles that had to be overcome merely to start down the long road toward stripping North Korea of any nuclear weapons and facilities. The obstacles included not only the North's legendary obstinance but also bitter disputes within the Bush administration. President Bush now appears to have sided with those who favor engaging Pyongyang over those who want to squeeze it in hopes of hastening the "evil" regime's collapse. "Rice was convinced, and that convinced the president," said Michael Green, Bush's former top Asia hand at the National Security Council.
And yet for all the relief by fatigued negotiators from the United States and five other countries, the hardest tasks have been left for the future. In its first phase, the accord will not eliminate any of North Korea's nuclear weapons. Experts estimate the North now has between four and 13 bombs' worth of plutonium.
Administration officials have insisted they would not reward the North's nuclear "bad behavior." But that, hard-line critics complain, is just what the deal does. Paradoxically, their assertion that North Korea had bested the United States is shared by some deal backers. Their complaint: The years of delay allowed Pyongyang to multiply its plutonium stockpile since the crisis erupted in October 2002. Says a former U.S. official, "We could have done this four years ago and gotten a better deal."
The "ABC" policy. The new accord brought immediate comparisons with the Clinton administration's 1994 bilateral pact that until 2002 delivered fuel aid, among other benefits, for a reactor freeze. The Clinton approach was the foil against which hawks rallied, dubbing the Bush policy "ABC"-Anything but Clinton. The idea was to do nothing to abet the survival of Kim Jong Il's repressive regime. Last week, Rice argued that the new pact should be more durable because it is multilateral, backed up by power players like Russia, South Korea, Japan, and, especially, China. U.S. News has learned that China, host of the talks, pushed back on Pyongyang for nearly scuttling the accord by demanding even more energy aid.
The agreement builds on the September 2005 joint principles for denuclearizing the North in exchange for security guarantees and economic and political benefits. Pyongyang is now obligated to halt and seal its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days, verified by U.N. inspectors. It will receive initial aid of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. As it disables nuclear facilities in a second phase, it gets 950,000 tons of fuel oil-all told worth $250 million to $300 million.
Key move. U.S. officials also will try to rapidly resolve a dispute with North Korea over money-laundering sanctions that nearly derailed progress in the nuclear talks. Five working groups will meet on security, political, and economic issues. One will focus on normalizing U.S.-North Korea ties. Washington agreed to "begin the process" of removing the North from the U.S. terrorism list and from countries sanctioned under the Trading with the Enemy Act. That could be key for Pyongyang. "They want a normal, long-term relationship with the United States," says Stanford University scholar John Lewis, who has visited North Korea 15 times.