A Deal With Pyongyang?

Friday, April 18, 2008

FOR MONTHS, the Bush administration has insisted that North Korea would have to fulfill its year-old commitment to disclose all of its nuclear programs in order to receive further economic and political concessions from the United States. The disclosure is important because Pyongyang has until now denied that it pursued uranium enrichment or helped Syria with a nuclear reactor, even though there is strong evidence that it did both. A truthful statement would indicate that the regime of Kim Jong Il was serious about giving up its weapons and not just trying to extort aid from the West as it has in the past.

Yet the Bush administration appears to be close to a deal under which North Korea would be excused from disclosing its work with uranium and proliferation activity. Instead, The Post's Glenn Kessler reported, it would merely "acknowledge" -- possibly in private -- a U.S. statement of concern about those activities. According to a package crafted by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the North would disclose only its plutonium stockpile, by far the most dangerous part of its nuclear program. In return the United States would make two major concessions: North Korea would be removed from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and be exempted from the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was still saying yesterday that "the outcome we and our partners require is a full account from North Korea of all its nuclear programs, including any uranium and nuclear proliferation activities." But the reality is that the Bush administration is letting an intransigent regime off the hook. Administration officials explain Ms. Rice's statement by saying that the North Koreans would eventually "account" for their uranium and proliferation by accepting a process of verification. But that process will be prolonged, if it succeeds at all. In the meantime Mr. Kim will pocket the latest U.S. concessions without making the "full and complete declaration" of nuclear programs that Ms. Rice previously said would be required.

In a meeting with members of Congress and in statements to reporters, Mr. Hill has argued that the first priority must be the plutonium stockpile, since it can be used to make weapons. In contrast, U.S. officials believe that while North Korea obtained equipment for uranium enrichment, it does not now have such a program. Yet there are also problems with North Korea's preliminary declaration on plutonium, which is well below U.S. intelligence estimates. Ms. Rice suggested that the amount of plutonium, too, will have to be confirmed by the verification process.

If the United States were able to reach its goal of having North Korea surrender its plutonium, substantial concessions would be justified. But senior administration officials say they don't expect that the Kim regime will turn over its plutonium in the coming nine months. That raises the question of why President Bush would allow North Korea to evade full disclosure. Mr. Hill's deal would preserve the negotiating process -- but what does the Bush administration stand to gain from it? All along the risk has been that North Korea would repeatedly extract economic and political favors from the United States without giving up its nuclear arsenal. The latest deal would seem to greatly increase the chance that that will be the legacy of Mr. Bush's diplomacy.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company