Change in North Korea?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

THE BUSH administration and the South Korean government are behaving as if they expect a remarkable transformation in North Korea within the next few months. The administration is quietly preparing to remove the regime of Kim Jong Il from the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- essentially reversing and repudiating President Bush's description of Pyongyang as part of an "axis of evil." For his part, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun -- like Mr. Bush, an unpopular lame duck -- showered Mr. Kim with promises of investments in North Korean roads, railroads and industrial zones at a summit meeting last week. One South Korean institute estimated that all the pledges would cost South Korea $11 billion if they are implemented by Mr. Roh's successor.

And the transformation? So far the evidence of it is mixed, at best. North Korea has shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and allowed monitoring by international inspectors, as it did in exchange for economic and diplomatic favors during the Clinton administration. Last week it approved a statement that said it would disclose all of its nuclear programs and materials -- presumably including the nuclear bombs it possesses -- and "disable" the Yongbyon facilities by the end of this year.

But, apart from agreeing to accept the free infrastructure from South Korea, Mr. Kim has shown little sign that he intends to fundamentally change his regime. Just last month, Israel bombed a Syrian military facility it believed was involved in nuclear activity with North Korean help. As for domestic change, Mr. Roh said that in his talks with Mr. Kim, "I could feel a sense of distrust and disapproval of our use of the terms 'reform' and 'opening.' " If North Korea fulfills its promises, the favors it is receiving may prove justified. The completeness of the nuclear disclosure will be crucial: If Pyongyang does not explain what it did with centrifuges it is known to have received from Pakistan, or what materials and expertise it supplied to Syria, its report will be blatantly incomplete -- and should freeze all U.S. concessions. Even if obvious questions are answered, international inspectors should be charged with auditing the North Korean programs.

If Mr. Kim genuinely intends to change his regime, the proof will come not this fall but next year, when the Bush administration hopes he will accept the complete dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities and give up his weapons. Mr. Bush clearly hopes to make such a breakthrough part of his legacy. Certainly it is worth pursuing. But the danger is that the regime's strategy is not to transform itself but to take advantage of weak and waning U.S. and South Korean administrations to extract economic and political payoffs while keeping its nuclear bombs.

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