North Korea's Reverse

Thursday, September 25, 2008

IN JUNE, the Bush administration's diplomacy with North Korea finally produced the video clip negotiators had long hoped for: that showing the demolition of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Now, it appears that that picture, which suggested that North Korea's dismantling of its nuclear infrastructure was irreversible, may have been misleading. Yesterday, the secretive communist regime ejected U.N. nuclear inspectors from Yongbyon and announced that it planned to reactivate a reprocessing plant that produces plutonium for weapons. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear material may be brought back into the facility within a week.

This provocative action triggered a familiar discussion among experts about what North Korea might be up to. Is it trying to bluff the West and its partners in the "six-party" negotiations into making further concessions? Are hard-liners in the regime of Kim Jong Il trying to reverse its commitment to denuclearize in exchange for economic and political concessions? And is Mr. Kim himself still running the country? The reclusive dictator reportedly suffered a stroke in mid-August and has not been seen in public since.

As always, there are no sure answers to these questions. Yet it seems fairly clear that, even before Mr. Kim's apparent illness, the action-for-action framework signed with North Korea early last year was coming undone, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the State Department to hold it together. A much-awaited declaration by Pyongyang of all its nuclear programs was accepted by the administration even though the declaration omitted several major elements that U.S. officials had insisted would be included, such as an explanation of work on uranium enrichment. The State Department suggested that such questions could be cleared up by a promised verification process. But Mr. Kim's negotiators promptly rejected U.S. verification proposals while insisting that the administration deliver on the promised removal of North Korea from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors.

It could be that North Korea simply wants Washington to deliver its largely symbolic political concession before agreeing to a verification regime. But it's more likely that Pyongyang is fundamentally unwilling to accept the full disclosure of its arsenal -- and verification is a step that the Bush administration cannot afford to fudge. U.S. diplomacy should now shift toward reapplying economic pressure on the regime and persuading China and South Korea to adopt new sanctions of their own. Whoever is now in charge of North Korea must be made to understand that a reversal of the denuclearization process will result in the country's economic strangulation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company