***UPDATE/1830 EDT***Fox News reports a potential deal between the U.S. and North Korea. In exchange for being removed from the list of states supporting terrorism, Pyongyang would agree to some sort of verification regime. However, the DPRK would not be required to disclose its proliferation activties.
Last month, North Korea pitched another diplomatic temper-tantrum, backing out of its nuclear agreement with the United States and other participants in the Six-Party Talks. And, for good measure, Pyongyang expelled U.N. inspectors and vowed to restart its nuclear facility at Yongbyong--the same complex that produced the plutonium for the DPRK's first atomic device, tested in 2006.
What prompted the latest outburst from Kim Jong-il's regime? Apparently, the U.S. wasn't moving fast enough to remove North Korea from its list of countries that support international terrorism. Washington had promised to strike Pyongyang from that list, provided that Mr. Kim provided a full disclosure of his country's nuclear activities. As you might have guessed, North Korea never lived up to its end of the bargain.
It was merely the latest example of a tactic we call the nuclear "rope-a-dope" which goes something like this:
Bluster, then offer to talk. When the negotiations bog down (due to North Korean intransigence), call off the talks and bluster some more. At that point, the U.S. and its allies will make concessions, to restart the diplomatic process. In response, Pyongyang will offer a few vague promises, even sign the occasional agreement. Then, when North Korean compliance is questioned, start the process all over again.
Judging from the latest events in the Hermit Kingdom, we are apparently at the "bluster some more" point in the process. According to South Korean press reporting, the DPRK has deployed at least 10 anti-ship missiles on its west coast, in preparation for an apparent test launch.
A Reuters dispatch indicates that Pyongyang fired two missiles into the Yellow Sea on Wednesday, and ROK defense officials believe that North Korea may launch as many as seven. The DPRK has established a closure area off its southwestern coast through 15 October, in preparation for expected missile tests.
So far, the North Korean move seems to be having the desired effect. Japan's Kyodo news agency reports that U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, our chief negotiator in the Six Party talks, has reportedly agreed that verification of uranium enrichment and proliferation activities will not be a condition for removing Pyongyang from the terror list (emphasis ours). And, to sweeten the pot, Washington may take North Korea off the list before the end of the month.
In other words, Pyongyang doesn't have to prove that it doesn't have a covert enrichment program, or isn't sharing its expertise with other rogue states, in exchange for being dropped from the list of terror sponsors. Never mind that those guarantees were essential elements of the nuclear deal. Anxious to preserve the Six Party Accord at any cost, Mr. Hill and his State Department colleagues are (apparently) willing to take North Korea's enrichment and proliferation requirements off the table, while accelerating Pyongyang's "de-listing" as a state sponsor of terror.
Talk about a win-win. Kim Jong-il must have opened another bottle of Hennessy when he heard that Washington had rolled over again. And why not? For the cost of initial restart activities at Yongbyon and firing a few, aging Silkworm missiles into the Yellow Sea, he extracted major concessions from the United States. We can only imagine what his next stunt will be.
Of course, that is still a few months off. Once North Korea is removed from the terror list, Pyongyang will make a few vague promises about re-entering the accord, put its missiles back into storage and slow (or even halt) the reactivation of Yongbyon. That will last until its time for the DPRK to demonstrate even rudimentary compliance, or gain more concessions from the U.S.
By that time, a new administration will be in office, facing the ever-present challenge of how to handle Kim Jong-il. If we had to guess, the next stand-off will occur sometime in early 2009, a period that coincides with North Korea's annual Winter Training Cycle, when military training is at its peak. That gives Mr. Kim even more options for taunting the U.S., say road-marching an entire mechanized division toward the DMZ, or a large-scale exercise featuring ballistic missiles.
Understanding that the U.S. is fully committed to the diplomatic track--to the exclusion of other options--Pyongyang has mastered the art of making Washington jump. Look for the next round of "frog" after Inauguration Day, or possibly sooner, if it suits North Korea's needs.