Waiting on North Korea

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

ON FEB. 13, the North Korean government formally pledged to shut down in 60 days the nuclear reactor it has been using to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, to accept the return of international inspectors to monitor the facility and to "discuss a list of all its nuclear programs" with the United States and the four other participants in the six-party talks. The agreement set up a concrete test of whether the regime of Kim Jong Il was prepared to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for economic aid and security guarantees.

Eighty-four days have passed since then -- and North Korea has fulfilled none of its pledges. In response, the Bush administration has remained largely silent, nursing the hope that Pyongyang will in the end comply. State Department officials say they still expect the Yongbyon reactor to be shut down, and we hope they're right. Still, it would be foolish for North Korea's negotiating partners not to take notice of how its behavior since Feb. 13 compares with the commitments it made.

Instead of shutting down its reactor or welcoming inspectors, North Korea has been focused entirely on extracting the maximum possible financial advantage from the United States. Alongside the Feb. 13 accord, the Bush administration said it would "resolve" the question of $25 million in North Korean funds that had been frozen in a Macau bank. The administration didn't say how it would resolve the matter; at the time, officials said they might be willing to release that part of the frozen funds that was not directly linked to criminal activities such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting of U.S. currency.

North Korea first made clear that it would take no action until the banking issue was settled by the unfreezing of its accounts. The administration conceded that. Then Pyongyang demanded all of its money back, including that linked to criminal activity. Again, the administration gave in; on April 10, it made all $25 million available for withdrawal. But that, too, failed to resolve the issue: Now the North is insisting that it be able to transfer the money to bank accounts in South Korea, Italy or Russia -- and thereby formally break the taboo the U.S. Treasury had managed to create on its use of the international banking system. Guess what? The Bush administration is once again going along.

Administration officials say all this, along with the breaking of the deadline by (so far) 24 days, will be worth it if the reactor is shut down. That's true. But it should be remembered that the commitments on which Pyongyang is currently in default are the first and easiest in what is supposed to be a three-stage process. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted in February, only if Kim Jong Il complied with the second stage -- by disclosing and disabling all nuclear facilities -- would it be possible to conclude that he had made a "strategic choice" to give up nuclear weapons. State Department negotiator Christopher Hill said last week that he still believed that that could happen by the end of this year. Again, we hope he's right. But so far, the record is this: In 84 days, North Korea has done nothing but extract concessions from the United States.

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