Waiting for Mr. Kim

Friday, January 4, 2008

WHEN NORTH Korea missed a Dec. 31 deadline for disclosing all of its nuclear weapons programs and disabling its Yongbyon reactor, the Bush administration completed a 360-degree turn from where it began in 2001. Then, President Bush broke off negotiations with the North opened by President Bill Clinton's administration, which had left office waiting for a serious response to its proposals to dismantle Pyongyang's missile program. Now, as 2008 begins, Mr. Bush finds himself where Mr. Clinton was, waiting and hoping that dictator Kim Jong Il will deliver -- and choosing to overlook the signs that he won't.

Mr. Kim's negotiators promised first in February and then in October that a full disclosure would be made of nuclear programs. That could be an important step beyond North Korea's previous deals with the West. It could answer both old and new questions, ranging from how many nuclear bombs the country has stockpiled to what deals it made with Pakistan (from which it imported centrifuge equipment) and Syria (to which it may have shipped material for a Yongbyon-like reactor). Such a disclosure would be a positive, though not definitive, sign that Mr. Kim's regime was seriously contemplating disarmament in exchange for aid and security guarantees from the West.

But there's been scant evidence that Mr. Kim is preparing his country for such a momentous decision, and numerous observers -- including several former Bush administration officials -- have suggested that Pyongyang is trying to extract the maximum economic benefit from the West without seriously compromising its arsenal. That theory got a big boost in December when U.S. officials learned that North Korea was preparing a declaration that would fall well short of full disclosure, even as work to "disable" Yongbyon slowed to a crawl. Word was sent to Pyongyang that an incomplete statement would not yield the favors the North seeks, including its removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Since then, administration officials have been waiting to see what move, if any, North Korea will make.

Once eager to deep-six talks with a regime that it deemed evil, the administration is now a model of patience. Officials say calmly that a couple more months may well pass before North Korea's disclosure is obtained and Yongbyon shut down. During that time supplies of fuel oil that were promised in exchange for North Korea's actions presumably will continue to flow. Officials seem to hope that China and a new, more hawkish South Korean government will apply pressure. There doesn't seem to be a plan beyond continuing to hope that Pyongyang will deliver, enabling a still-larger deal on nuclear disarmament to be struck. Would it have made sense for the Bush administration to invest so much in diplomacy seven years ago? Soon the answer to that much-debated question may become clearer.

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