Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The "Disabling" Promise

Over the weekend, North Korea promised to "account for and disable" its nuclear programs by the end of 2007, offering its first timeline for a process long-sought by negotiators. As the AP reports:

Kim Gye Gwan, head of the North Korean delegation, said separately his country's willingness to cooperate was clear — in return for "political and economic compensation" — but he mentioned no dates.

Christopher Hill, a U.S. assistant secretary of state, said two days of talks between the United States and North Korea in Geneva had been "very good and very substantive" and would help improve chances of a successful meeting later this month with Japan, Russia, South Korea and China in six-nation talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons program and improving relations between North Korea and other countries.

"One thing that we agreed on is that the DPRK will provide a full declaration of all of their nuclear programs and will disable their nuclear programs by the end of this year, 2007," Hill told reporters, using the initials for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Hill said the declaration will also include uranium enrichment programs, which the United States fears could be used to make nuclear weapons.

"When we say all nuclear programs, we mean all," he said.

U.S. and North Korean negotiators met in Geneva, part of "working group sessions" called for in last February's six-party accord, in which North Korea agreed to disable its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor, and eventually, dismantle all nuclear activities.

The agreement will be hailed as a diplomatic victory--and rightfully so. On the surface, Pyongyang appears to be moving in the right direction on the nuclear issue, and the Bush Administration deserves credit for implementing the Six-Party approach and sticking to that format, even when North Korea broke off talks and staged an apparent nuclear test last fall.

But, as with other agreements between the U.S. and the DPRK, the devil's (quite literally) in the details. It took months to achieve a shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and its plutonium production capability. More disturbingly, there is some question as to whether the most recent agreement covers the Yongbyon complex. Without a verified shutdown of Yongbyon--and an end to all plutonium production and uranium enrichment activities--the nuclear deal will be worthless.

Then, there's the thorny issue of full disclosure, never the strong suit of Kim Jong-il's regime. As we've noted in previous posts, the 1994 "Agreed To" Framework proved to be a North Korean ploy to get needed energy aid. While the U.S. and South Korea delivered thousands of tons of fuel oil, Pyongyang simply took its nuclear program underground, achieving technical advances that led to last year's nuclear test.

While the latest deal has allowed U.N. inspectors to reenter North Korea, their ability to access all of the DPRK's nuclear sites remains unclear. As former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton noted in an OpinionJournal column last Friday, we need an "invasive" verification mechanism to insure compliance and provide the full history of Pyongyang's nuclear program--number of devices produced, the success of development efforts and cooperation with other rogue states like Iran and Syria. Without such verification--which is hardly assured--we may never know the full scope and status of North Korea's nuclear efforts.

Mr. Hill and other U.S. officials insist that the Pyongyang account for the full range of its nuclear activities. That's encouraging, but (as Ambassador Bolton observes) our must resist the temptation to simply tout "the agreement" or let North Korea off with a loosely-worded declaration of its nuclear past. North Korea has made it very clear that it expects to receive political and economic rewards for its "compliance." The U.S. (and its allies) must set clear, verifiable steps for those rewards, and be willing to walk away if the DPRK balks.

North Korea has promised to disable its nuclear programs. Now let them prove--for once--that their promise actually means something.

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