North Korea tries nuclear talks ploy again

Saturday, October 9, 2010

THOUGH IT promised "engagement" with rogue states, the Obama administration has so far held North Korea at arm's length. Its "strategic patience" strategy has been aimed at breaking Pyongyang's longstanding routine of ramping up its nuclear weapons program, extracting bribes in exchange for promises to curtail it -- and then repeating the cycle. The administration's position, and that of South Korea and Japan, is that the regime of Kim Jong Il should take steps to prove its seriousness about denuclearization before negotiations are renewed.

Evidently, the approach isn't yet working. According to a report issued Friday by the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea is developing centrifuges for uranium enrichment -- which could give it a new material for nuclear weapons in addition to the plutonium it has extracted from its Yongbyun reactor. In addition, satellite images show evidence of excavation at the site of the Yongbyun cooling tower, which was destroyed in 2008 during the last, failed, round of bargaining between the regime and the Bush administration. That could mean the regime, which now refers to itself as a "nuclear weapons state," is preparing to produce more plutonium, as well.

While doing exactly the opposite of what the democratic states demanded, Mr. Kim is signaling, through China and through former president Jimmy Carter, that he would like to return to the "six-party talks," the diplomatic exercise in futility pursued by the Bush administration for more than five years. "There are now clear signals of eagerness from Pyongyang to resume negotiations," Mr. Carter wrote, in an op-ed published in the New York Times last month, after a visit to Pyongyang. In other words: Mr. Kim would like to repeat his trick of prodding the West into offering aid and lifting sanctions in the hope that he will freeze his nuclear program and engage in serious talks about disarmament.

Mr. Kim has never dealt honestly in previous negotiations. For example, the regime refused to acknowledge work on uranium enrichment, and forced the Bush administration to exclude that subject from the earlier talks. He is even less likely to be serious about disarmament now, since he is seeking to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor and can do nothing to alienate his generals. If the Obama administration followed Mr. Carter's advice of pursuing negotiations "aggressively and without delay," it would -- by agreeing to the payoffs the North would surely demand -- only help Mr. Kim pull off his transition. Rather than make that mistake, it should stay with "patience"; continue to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang; make clear to China that its tolerance of the regime's nuclear activities endangers security in the region; and focus on preventing any export by North Korea of centrifuges or other nuclear equipment to other nations.

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