Settling With North Korea

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE BEST argument for the Bush administration's latest deal with North Korea comes from those U.S. officials who don't try to pretend it represents a positive step toward the nuclear disarmament of that Stalinist state. After all, that's pretty hard to do. North Korea nominally accepted a manifestly inadequate verification process for its earlier, blatantly incomplete declaration of nuclear materials and programs. In exchange, the State Department removed the regime of Kim Jong Il from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. This concession was granted over the loud protests of Japan, which has yet to receive a promised accounting of what happened to citizens who were abducted by North Korea; and of human rights activists, who point out -- correctly -- that Mr. Kim's domestic reign of terror has not been altered.

This bad bargain makes sense only if two political transitions are factored in -- one in the United States, and another, potentially, in Pyongyang. To force Washington's hand, North Korea resorted to its usual tactic of brinkmanship. It expelled international inspectors from the Yongbyon nuclear facility, fired off test missiles and threatened to resume the reprocessing of plutonium. That left the outgoing Bush administration with a choice: hand off yet another crisis to the next president or pay for an unsatisfactory but more stable situation. It chose the latter. North Korea readmitted inspectors to Yongbyon and says it will resume disabling the plant. Though the verification process will probably go nowhere, the next administration could have time to consider its strategy rather than immediately have to face an adversary that is actively producing bomb-grade plutonium or preparing another nuclear test.

The deal also buys time to ponder the status of Mr. Kim, who disappeared from view in August and is believed to have suffered a stroke. Last weekend North Korean television broadcast pictures of what it said was Mr. Kim inspecting a military unit, in what would have been his first public appearance since he was stricken. But Western observers soon discerned that the images were old -- which only served to underline the questions about the health of the dictator. If North Korea is undergoing its own leadership transition, its behavior may grow even more erratic than usual. We have favored retightening economic sanctions against North Korea to compel a fully verified disclosure of its nuclear activities. Under the circumstances, keeping its nuclear complex shut for the next few months may be worth the political bribe delivered by the State Department. But no one -- especially not the next U.S. president -- should mistake this accommodation for genuine progress toward the goal of disarming what remains a dangerous, and terrorist, state.

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