Tentative First Steps in North Korea Diplomacy

North Korea's recent nuclear confession and the quick response from U.S. President George W. Bush bring us closer to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But there are many more steps left. North Korea's disclosure was conspicuous for what it omitted: bombs. It laid out some details of Pyongyang's plutonium-based weapons program, but much of that information isn't new. The Koreans admitted that they'd moved spent fuel rods and reprocessed them into fissile material, which we knew—but we still don't know how much they have. North Korea has an unknown number of weapons, and the statement shed no light on those. Pyongyang did invite foreign news organizations to film the demolition of the Yongbyon reactor's cooling tower for a fee. But this was a publicity stunt.

The declaration also didn't cover Pyongyang's alleged uranium-enrichment program and its various foreign weapons deals, including suspected assistance for Syria.

This might explain why President Bush's response was fast but also hesitant. He lifted restrictions on commerce with North Korea and told Congress he planned to remove Pyongyang from the list of terrorism sponsors. But the White House hedged by preserving some existing sanctions and saying the rewards would be reversed if Pyongyang's confession turns out to be inaccurate.

Lifting the trade restrictions will have a minimal impact. North Korea will remain one of a few countries that doesn't have normal trade relations with the United States, meaning its exports will continue to be subjected to punitive tariffs of up to 90 percent.

Removing North Korea from the terrorism list means that Washington can now legally support it for membership in international financial organizations such as the World Bank. But the White House is under no obligation to actually do so. North Korea also remains excluded from U.S. government programs that encourage trade and investment.

North Korea's declaration will trigger a reconvening of the Six-Party Talks, which includes China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The inadequate nature of the declaration guarantees there will be yet another round of negotiations in which North Korea will reveal a bit more in return for further concessions. It is no accident that up to 50,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid is expected to arrive in North Korea early this month.

How did the Bush administration go from its "Axis of Evil" approach to Pyongyang to "Food for Talks"? U.S. strategy has long been to force North Korea to choose between keeping its nukes—but remaining isolated—and giving up its weapons in return for greater prosperity and integration into the world community. The problem is that China and South Korea are more worried about a North Korean collapse than about its weapons, and have acted as enablers, helping Kim Jong Il to survive despite the U.S. pressure.

Bush thus wasted most of his presidency trying to isolate a nation with powerful supporters on both of its borders. He started negotiating seriously only in August 2005. Now, in the twilight of his presidency, the North Koreans could decide to stonewall on any further concessions as they did to the Clinton administration at the end, thinking they might get a better deal from the next president.

So what's the best we can hope for? As long as Kim remains in power, there will be lingering uncertainty about North Korea's true nuclear assets. If we're lucky, the world community will get fairly solid assurances that Pyongyang has ended its nuclear weapons-building. But there will be less certainty about its nuclear-arms dealing. In the past, North Korea has been associated with missile or nuclear cooperation with Syria and virtually every major oil exporter, especially Iran. With oil prices at record levels, these customers are flush. The ultimate nightmare is that Pyongyang will cooperate with non-state actors such as Al Qaeda. And there will be still less certainty about the size of North Korea's arsenal. Thus prudent military planners in Washington and elsewhere must continue to assume that Pyongyang will retain some nuclear capacity for the foreseeable future. That's not ideal. But it's probably an outcome we can live with—especially since we have very little choice.