North Korean Mystery

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Two big questions hang over the new agreement to contain North Korea's nuclear weapons program at its current level -- whatever that level is.

Why has a secretive government addicted to power politics and flexing its military muscles abruptly turned to negotiations and peaceful compromise?

And why is North Korea doing the same?

The Bush administration, of course, cannot match Kim Jong Il's regime in paranoia, bellicosity and information control, although this White House seems at times to have been tempted to try. Other countries know next to nothing about Pyongyang's motivations, intentions or even its ability to carry out any agreement it makes.

This deepens the Washington end of this great strategic mystery: Why is President Bush accepting the promises of a regime he has regularly excoriated -- at a time when officials in his administration make a credible case that North Korea has just been caught helping Syria with nuclear technology?

North Korea's desperation as its economy implodes and its people starve is clearly part of the answer. Pyongyang's plight has helped U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill get an agreement that he believes can be verified and enforced. Timing is also everything for Bush, who is reaching for diplomatic successes before his presidency ends.

There are months of quibbling ahead over the differences between "disabling" and "dismantling" North Korea's plutonium production facilities and other points in the agreement. But Hill appears to have pulled the hermit nation of North Korea into an international process that carefully calibrates risks and rewards on both sides.

A crucial provision of the six-nation accord announced in Beijing on Wednesday requires Pyongyang to declare the extent of its weapons-grade plutonium stockpile, including the amount it used in a nuclear test last year.

U.S. officials have estimated that North Korea could make 10 to 12 bombs from its existing stockpile. But the actual number is smaller -- perhaps half as many -- according to the intelligence service of one major Asian nation. A significant revision downward in U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korea's nuclear threat could explain the Bush administration's more relaxed view of Pyongyang in recent months.

But the more significant change in attitude has come from Pyongyang toward Washington, according to diplomats involved in the talks, which also included China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

A key moment came when North Korea agreed to an international inspection last month to determine how its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon should be disabled -- and asked Hill to have the United States rather than the United Nations carry out that intrusive inspection.

A U.S.-led inspection would have much more credibility in Washington, the North Koreans indicated. They also want to move quickly -- that is, while Bush is still in office and can presumably beat back Republican opposition to the agreement.

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