Still Waiting on North Korea

Sunday, June 24, 2007

ONE HUNDRED thirty-one days ago North Korea committed itself to shutting down the plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear reactor within 60 days, readmitting international inspectors and discussing "a list of all its nuclear programs" in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil and the beginning of a normalization of relations with the United States. Since then the Bush administration has made a string of concessions to Pyongyang, most of them unmentioned in the Feb. 13 accord. The regime of Kim Jong Il has done nothing, other than skillfully extract those favors.

Friday in Pyongyang, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill predicted that the payoff for the United States and its negotiating partners was imminent. United Nations inspectors, he said, would visit the North this week, and the reactor would be shut down "the week after that, or two weeks after that." If so -- and we won't be holding our breath -- that will be good news. But the means of getting there ought to prompt more caution about a process that, even with a Yongbyon shutdown, will not have reached the point where North Korea's seriousness about denuclearization could be confirmed.

Mr. Hill's presence in Pyongyang was one of those extra concessions obtained by the North. In the past the Bush administration has resisted such one-on-one talks in favor of the six-party format; his was the first visit by a senior U.S. official in almost five years. While he was there, administration officials were anxiously awaiting confirmation of the return of $25 million in North Korean funds that had been frozen in a Macao bank because of a U.S. Treasury investigation. The United States promised a "resolution" of the investigation at the time of the Feb. 13 agreement; since then it has caved to the North's demands that it return all of the money -- not just that unconnected to criminal activities -- and transfer it through the U.S. Federal Reserve, thereby signaling Mr. Kim's restored access to the international banking system.

Though still waiting for the North's first step, Mr. Hill sounded almost euphoric on Friday. "I come away . . . buoyed by a sense that we are going to be able to achieve our full objectives, that is, complete denuclearization," he said in Seoul. As for the turning point defined by his boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- North Korean action to permanently disable Yongbyon, along with a complete disclosure of its nuclear programs -- "that's a few months down the road," Mr. Hill said.

Yongbyon's dismantlement would indeed be a breakthrough. But months already have passed since the North missed the initial deadline for suspending operations at the reactor, with no consequence other than additional U.S. sweeteners. Mr. Kim seems adept at exploiting American impatience for a breakthrough. During its last weeks the Clinton administration was drawn in by North Korean hints about a deal on its missile program, and it dispatched Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang for what became a grotesque propaganda windfall for Mr. Kim. The missile deal never came close to materializing.

Given the threat posed by a loathsome dictatorship apparently armed with nuclear weapons, the Bush administration is right to explore whether Mr. Kim's promises of disarmament are serious this time. But it should stop making one-sided concessions to a regime that has, as yet, not shown it will do more than pocket them.

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