Among the pieces of unfinished business that the Bush administration will pass on to its successor is a now five-year-old effort to denuclearize North Korea. Whoever takes office in January 2009 will inherit a process and a set of understandings that supporters claim have finally brought that goal within reach. But have they? A new administration should take the opportunity to pause and conduct its own assessment of where things stand and where they may be going.
Following North Korea's first test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006, the Bush administration reversed course and abandoned its previous policy of trying to mobilize multilateral pressure on Pyongyang. Instead of insisting that all serious negotiations be conducted in the context of the so-called Six Party talks, American representatives entered into a series of intense, secret one-on-one discussions with their North Korean counterparts. And instead of trying to tighten the cordon of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure that it had struggled to build and maintain, the administration decided to ease off and began to discuss inducements to Kim Jong-Il in return for denuclearization.
By February 2007, the two sides had agreed to a step-by-step process in which each would give up something in return for concessions from the other. This reciprocal process, it was hoped, would lead eventually to a final settlement under which North Korea would abandon all elements of its nuclear weapons programs in return for economic assistance and acceptance as a member in good standing of the international community.
To date, the balance of concessions is running heavily in Pyongyang's favor. The United States has lifted painful financial sanctions on Kim and his cronies, provided significant shipments of fuel oil, and declared its intention to take North Korea off its lists of enemies and terror-supporting states, thereby opening the way for broader economic and diplomatic engagement.
In addition to these direct moves, Washington has been urging a skeptical Japan to soften its own hard-line policies, and it has dropped its objection to China and South Korea offering various forms of aid and economic assistance to the North. While his paranoia may prevent him from fully savoring the moment, Kim has good reason to feel more comfortable and secure than he did two years ago when the North conducted its nuclear test.
For their part, the North Koreans have taken steps to disable the aged plutonium-producing reactor complex at Yongbyon, including, most spectacularly, blowing up the reactor cooling tower before an audience of television cameras. Pyongyang has also provided a figure for the quantity of weapons-grade material it says it produced there, and a set of documents that supposedly support this claim.
These are not trivial steps. But at this point they are more show than substance. First and foremost, of course, is the fact that, despite all the fanfare, Pyongyang has yet to hand over an ounce of fissile material. Moreover, while Yongbyon has been disabled, it has not yet been dismantled. Although it would now take some time for the North to restart production of plutonium, the option of doing so remains.
Despite having pledged to provide a "complete and correct" account of all its nuclear activities, Pyongyang has also refused to address allegations that it has a separate highly enriched uranium program or to discuss past involvement in spreading nuclear technology. This in the face of strong circumstantial evidence that a serious highly enriched uranium program exists or may have existed at one time (including radioactive contamination of aluminum chunks the North turned over to prove that they had not been used to build enrichment centrifuges) and overwhelming evidence that North Korea helped Syria build the secret nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed last year.
Although the full details of the negotiations have not yet been released, the North is said to have "acknowledged" U.S. concerns on both of these fronts. What this means, at best, is that Pyongyang is saying: We didn't do anything wrong and we won't do it again!
Defenders of the current process acknowledge that the real heavy lifting of denuclearization remains ahead, but they are optimistic that it is about to begin. If the North does not now move promptly to complete the deconstruction of Yongbyon, agree to procedures for verifying its claims and handing over plutonium, and come clean on uranium and proliferation, the deal can be called off, concessions rolled back, and sanctions reimposed.