THE "ACTION PLAN" on North Korea's denuclearization issued yesterday by the "six-party" talks in Beijing offers the advantage of focusing, initially, on a single and relatively modest exchange. Within 60 days, the North Korean regime is to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant under the monitoring of international inspectors, who would return to the country after a four-year absence. In exchange the North is to receive 50,000 tons of fuel oil, the "resolution" of U.S. banking sanctions and the beginning of bilateral talks on the normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations. If the shutdown takes place, North Korean production of plutonium for nuclear weapons will also stop -- a welcome if very limited step forward.
Unlike the failed "Agreed Framework" between the Clinton administration and North Korea, the new deal is not open-ended: North Korea will get no more than the one-time "emergency" supply of oil, worth about $12 million, unless it takes further action. This accord also includes China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, whose involvement raises the chance that Pyongyang will comply and demonstrates that the six-party approach the Bush administration embraced more than three years ago can produce results. In that sense it is wrong to argue that the administration has simply reverted to the Clinton-era arrangement that it repudiated in 2002, and if it is rewarding North Korea's misbehavior, the bribe is a small one.
The drawback is that North Korea keeps, for now, the weapons and plutonium stockpile it has amassed. Also, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged yesterday, the first real test of whether dictator Kim Jong Il will give up his nukes lies in a less clearly defined future. According to the plan, North Korea is to permanently disable the Yongbyon facilities and provide a "complete declaration of all nuclear programs" in exchange for the equivalent of 950,000 more barrels of oil. How and when it will accomplish the disablement, how its disclosure will be verified and what else it might receive in exchange remain to be worked out; among the many difficulties is the North's refusal to acknowledge a secret uranium enrichment program. As Ms. Rice said, those steps would be "a sign that the North Koreans may, in fact, be ready to make a strategic choice" to give up nuclear weapons.
Along with many experts on North Korea, we're skeptical that Mr. Kim would choose to give up nuclear weapons unless he were convinced that the survival of his regime depended on it. Administration officials say they have been encouraged to believe that China, which controls North Korea's lifelines of fuel and food, has made the regime's disarmament a priority since its nuclear test last fall; recently enacted U.N. sanctions may also help. Trying to push Mr. Kim into a permanent shutdown of plutonium production over the next year is certainly worthwhile. Yesterday's announcement was a start, but as the football-loving Ms. Rice said, "This is still the first quarter."