The spectacle of the White House's hailing a major diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, a nation George W. Bush once shunned as a member of the Axis of Evil, has many folks heaving a sigh of relief. As the deal fell into place last month, Pyongyang handed over an inventory of its nuclear weapons and equipment and demolished a cooling tower at its main nuclear complex, rendering it unfit for weapons production. In response, Washington promised to remove North Korea from its list of governments that sponsor terrorism, and suspended some sanctions. Suddenly, a White House best-known for not talking to enemies was on a path designed to talk Pyongyang off the nuclear-weapons path and into good graces with the international community.
A chorus of experts—some of them usually known better for criticism of Bush's doings—declared Pyongyang's move a full-fledged breakthrough. John Park, head of the Korea working group at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said this "important deal" heralds "the beginning of the real work." Lim Dong Won, a former South Korean Unification minister, called it "the most important progress in 60 years of Pyongyang-Washington relations." The Bush administration said that if North Korea continued to make "the right choices, it can repair its relationship with the international community."
But as structured so far, the deal has dangerous ambiguities and fails to address major parts of Kim Jong Il's weapons programs. The deal is supposed to rid Kim of his entire stockpile of nuclear materials and prevent North Korea from sharing its technology with other pariah states. Yet critics charge that the current agreement addresses only the North's declared plutonium program while failing to determine action on its alleged parallel program of uranium enrichment—raising the possibility that Pyongyang could maintain a covert stock of weapons-grade uranium even if it surrenders its plutonium. Other skeptics argue that the negotiations cover only nuclear materials and not the warheads and missiles that might go with them; some analysts also worry that the North hasn't declared all the plutonium it actually has. And the talks are also faulted for failing to address concerns about proliferation—such as the North's possible sharing of its nuclear know-how with Syria and other states. As a result, the agreement may end up rewarding the North for minor concessions while buying it time to keep stockpiling weapons. By opening the flow of aid and trade that Kim desperately needs, it may prop up his despotic government.
The process is still in its early days. A February 2007 agreement spells out the steps North Korea must take to be declared fully nuke-free in return for a broad program of economic aid, a formal end to the 1950–53 Korean War and full diplomatic recognition by the United States that would enable the North to rejoin the international community. Many of those conditions have not been met. Pyongyang still has to surrender all its plutonium and allow for snap inspections of all suspicious installations. Already, there are signs of North Korean dodging: experts say the inventory it provided, which has yet to be made public, failed to detail the current weapons stockpile or address suspicions that North Korea maintains a secret parallel uranium-enrichment program. It also doesn't reveal anything about Pyongyang's suspected sale of nuclear technology to Syria.
North Korea is infamous for using its illicit nuclear programs to extract money and concessions, and may be at it again. "For the North, the nuclear program is a sanctuary," says Yoon Duk Min of the Korea Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, suggesting Pyongyang will drag out the negotiation process for as long as possible. Michael Green, a former member of Bush's National Security Council, says that by holding on to parts of the program while giving up others, Kim "can now go to the Europeans and get enough bits and pieces of aid and cognac to remain in power."
This strategy won't bring Pyongyang the ultimate prize it seeks: normalization of relations with Washington and the legitimization of North Korea as an international player. Analysts like Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation argue that a grand deal with the United States would make it hard for Pyongyang to keep using Washington's "hostile policy" as its prime excuse for refusing to reform its economic-mismanagement practices and give up nuclear weapons. But that argument downplays the capacity of Pyongyang's paranoid propaganda machine to manufacture new threats. The new South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak has taken a harder line on the North than its predecessors, provoking angry outbursts from Pyongyang. Lee could fit the bogeyman suit well.
Pyongyang has also defied greater economic pressures to change. After decades of steady economic deterioration, today's North Korea is pitifully poor. Its exports in 2006 totaled just $1.5 billion, compared with South Korea's $326 billion. In the late 1990s a famine created in part by the socialist agricultural system killed as many as a million people and left a third of North Korean children stunted by malnutrition. These woes moved Kim to experiment with private markets, but on a scale too small to energize the economy—perhaps because he fears the loss of political control that major reform might bring.
The fear of chaos is shared by the major powers pushing North Korea to give up nuclear weapons in the Six-Party international talks. China, South Korea, Japan and Russia are all on or near North Korea's borders. None welcomes the specter of regime collapse and the refugee flows that could follow. Their aim is to contain North Korea's nuclear program, not to force regime change or even reform, and analysts who expect more miss this point.
South Korea, which would bear the brunt of a Northern implosion, is most leery of dramatic change. Many South Korean businessmen see the country as a potential source of uncomplaining, low-wage labor that will help them challenge China's export factories. "Seoul wants North Korea to be its Mexico," says Park of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
To be Mexico, a successful emerging market, would be a huge improvement for North Korea. Abandoning his nuclear weapons for U.S. diplomatic recognition and security guarantees could give Kim the space he would need to move ahead with modernization efforts, if he wants to. The fact is, no one outside North Korea knows for sure whether its secretive leader is a reformer or not.
That's a shame. Pyongyang has much to gain. The nuclear deal would clear the way for new investments from China and South Korea, which could rebuild a decrepit energy grid and expand special economic zones like the one currently maintained at Kaesong, where Northern workers labor in South Korean-owned factories. There's also been talk of connecting rail lines from South Korea through North Korea to China, of massive South Korean job-training programs for Northern workers. Even the hard-line Lee administration has already set a goal of helping the North raise its per capita GDP from $1,800 to $3,000 over the next decade. But all that presumes that Kim can somehow rise above his country's long-established track record as a shifty negotiator, a belligerent beggar and a famously unreliable business partner. It's entirely possible that the North is ready to change its bad habits of old. For the moment, though, the latest breakthrough looks more like the first step on a long and bumpy road filled with myriad obstacles that could bring the journey to a halt at any time.