North Korea Talks

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

NORTH KOREA'S decision to return to the "six party" negotiations on its nuclear program is, first and foremost, a victory for China and its strategy of preserving Kim Jong Il's totalitarian regime. Whether it will contribute to the cause of dismantling the North's atomic arsenal remains to be seen. Beijing hosts the talks, which also include the United States, South Korea, Russia and Japan; the North's refusal to attend for the past year, while testing a long-range missile and then a nuclear warhead, was an embarrassment to its chief patron. It appears China responded toughly: Though it supplies up to 90 percent of North Korea's oil, none was delivered in September. This blunt use of economic leverage -- if that's what it was -- is encouraging, and yesterday's announcement was evidence that it can get results.

The resumption of talks nevertheless falls well short of a breakthrough in the Bush administration's effort to disarm the Kim dictatorship. We hope Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, who conducted lengthy talks with his North Korean counterpart in recent days, is justified in expecting "substantial progress" from the new round. But history suggests that both North Korea and China may have achieved their objectives simply by making yesterday's announcement. Pyongyang no doubt expects that its attendance will result in the relaxation of whatever pressure China has applied and that South Korea will now hesitate to cut back on its own substantial subsidies. U.S. attempts to strictly apply recently approved U.N. sanctions and organize inspections of North Korean cargo ships might falter. While talks continue, China can deflect further pressure from the United States or Japan for steps that might ultimately destabilize a regime it prefers to preserve.

If Mr. Kim really is prepared to give up his nukes, a path has been laid. A "framework agreement" signed by the six parties more than a year ago called for North Korea to dismantle its program and receive aid and security guarantees in return, including normalization of relations with the United States. Critics who harp on the need for the Bush administration to strike a deal with Mr. Kim tend to overlook the fact that this deal has already been struck. The question is whether North Korea is serious about it or whether it agreed to the plan merely to mollify China and South Korea and buy more time to develop missiles and nuclear warheads. The evidence points to the latter explanation: Within weeks of agreeing, Mr. Kim broke off the talks, citing as a reason U.S. action against offshore bank accounts his government was using for criminal activity, including the massive counterfeiting of U.S. currency.

Mr. Hill said yesterday that the Bush administration had agreed to discuss the financial sanctions at the talks, thereby removing Mr. Kim's excuse. Now both he and his sponsors will be tested. If North Korea really wants to act on the framework agreement, that should quickly become clear: The accord calls for the regime to return "at an early date" to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the international inspections it requires. If not, China will face a question: Is it willing to use its now proven clout with the North to put an end to its nuclear program -- or only to require that it attend meetings?

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