At first blush, it's tempting to describe the tentative deal between the U.S. and North Korea as an exercise in "kicking the can down the road." Pyongyang has agreed, in principle, to close down and seal its main reactor within 60 days, in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil, as a first step in abandoning its nuclear weapons and research program. There were similar provisions in the ill-fated, 1994 "Agreed To Framework," which (essentially) paved the way for a covert North Korean program, which yielded the primitive nuclear device tested last fall. In light of the DPRK's demonstrated willingness to break deals and negotiate in bad faith, there is a tendency to view the accord with a great deal of suspicion, wondering how long it will last, and even speculate about when Pyongyang will make new demands that could derail the entire process.
Today's Washington Post has a good summary of the agreement--and the hurdles that remain in the implementation process. Disabling the reactor represents the next phase in a largely undefined phase of "denuclearization," which also includes discussions on plutonium fuel reserves and other efforts that will be abandoned under the accord. In return, the North will receive additional energy, humanitarian and economic assistance, up to the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil. The U.S. has also agreed to discuss the possible normalization of relations with the DPRK--a longstanding goal of Pyongyang--and resolve a dispute over North Korean money laundering through a Macau bank.
U.S. negotiators view the tentative agreement as a "down payment" on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and improved relations between North Korea and its neighbors. Of course, the devil is always in the details, and the success of this agreement will (ultimately) hinge on the continued engagement of the "other" participants in the Six Party talks--particularly Japan, China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow still have considerable leverage with Kim Jong-il's regime, and their willingness to support limited sanctions against the north probably convinced Pyongyang that it was time to cut a deal. But will the Russians and Chinese be willing to continue to exert pressure on Pyongyang as the implementation process moves along? That's the $64,000 question, and a cynic would argue that the DPRK's long-time allies may lean more on the U.S. to uphold its end of the bargain, while granting North Korea more leeway in its "denuclearization" efforts.
Then, there's the question of what exactly happens to Pyongyang's accumulated nuclear technology and expertise. The "limits" of the North's nuclear efforts have never been fully documented, and the U.S. has only vague ideas about the number of scientists and engineers employed in various weapons and research programs sponsored by the DPRK. With North Korea supposedly getting out of the nuke business, what's to keep Kim Jong-il's scientists from taking their talents to Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or other countries with nuclear ambitions.
Dealing with that possibilty represents a major challenge of the denuclearization process. To help prevent the spread of nuclear technology, is the U.S. prepared to propose some sort of extension of the Nunn-Lugar Act, which could provide stipends for unemployed North Korean nuclear engineers and researchers? Nunn-Lugar has often been hailed as an example of effective counter-proliferation efforts, but it has not prevented Russian--and even North Korean--nuclear specialists from traveling to places like Iran. Moreover, with the DPRK in dire economic straits, nuclear technology represents one of its few "viable" exports. Given that reality, it's difficult to imagine Pyongyang simply shuttering the program, and rejecting a source of badly-needed hard currency. Making matters worse, one could argue that the proliferation "horse is already out of the barn," given the apparent ties between North Korea's nuclear programs and those of other rogue states. These relationships also give Pyongyang of continuing their weapons development efforts "offshore," and outside the framework of the peninsula agreement.
Today's nuclear deal is certainly better than no deal at all, but it's easy to be pessimistic about the accord's long-term prospects for survival and implementation. North Korea got much of what it wanted in the announced deal (and so did the U.S.), but there's genuine concern that Pyongyang will--eventually--decide it wants even more, and demand concessions that Washington and Seoul simply can't grant. Or, the DPRK may simply revert to its behavior of the mid-1990s, making public efforts to "observe" the agreement, while continuing a covert nuclear program. That's why the next round of the process, when North Korea discusses the scope of its nuclear efforts, will be so important. Pyongyang has rarely been forthcoming about anything, and you can expect them to hem and haw when the U.S. submits tough questions about its nuclear activities. And don't be surprised if the "answers" to those questions come with an additional "price."
One final thought: liberal pundits are already drawing parallels between today's agreement and the Agreed To framework of 1994. But their analysis (typically) ignores a critical point. The 1994 deal was the result of diplomatic "free lancing" by that old dictator and terrorist coddler, Jimmy Carter. Acting on his own, Mr. Carter went to Pyongyang and proposed a deal, which the Clinton Administration elected to go along with. The Bush Administration--wisely--kept Carter out of the loop on this one, electing instead to mount a regional diplomatic approach. Hopefully, the new deal will prove more successful--and verifiable--than the 1994 accord, which proved to be a disaster, both diplomatically and militarily. We'll soon see if Mr. Bush (and his negotiators) have created a mechanism for solving the North Korean nuclear problem, or simply given the can another kick.
But the Carter deal served a useful purpose for Mr. Clinton, who was anxious to get North Korea off the table, and focus on domestic issues, like welfare reform and school uniforms. By accepting a flawed accord in 1994, Clinton kicked the North Korean can down the road, forcing his successor to deal with the problem.