It looked like a major victory for the Bush Administration. On July 31, word leaked out of Moscow that North Korea had finally agreed to a U.S. demand for multiparty talks on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear programs, which could otherwise be capable of producing six bombs within months.
But the sense of triumph in Washington won't last long. Negotiations expected to begin in September involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. are likely to be the most difficult and complex the Bush Administration has attempted so far -- way tougher than dealing with Moscow on the antiballistic missile treaty or the U.N. Security Council on Iraq. The results could set precedents for how Washington deals with other weapons proliferators such as Iran.
The Administration faces a host of dilemmas. Washington wants Pyongyang to agree to the "verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear operations -- including the plutonium reprocessing recently restarted at a complex in Yongbyon and a highly enriched uranium program that Pyongyang admitted to last October. That secret program had violated a 1994 pact with the Clinton Administration. Pyongyang wants security guarantees, economic aid, diplomatic ties with the U.S., and other goodies in return for disarmament.
The U.S. has refused to give in to "nuclear blackmail," so talks could quickly bog down over who makes concessions first. Since Pyongyang has pulled out of several international agreements, including the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the U.S. may be under pressure to offer carrots just to return to last year's status quo. The North Koreans "have almost all the leverage," says Leon V. Sigal, a Korea expert at the Social Science Research Council, a New York think tank.
The biggest problem, however, is coming up with safeguards to ensure that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il can't secretly restart his nuclear program. Achieving verifiable and irreversible dismantling will be impossible if Kim refuses to cooperate in a sweeping inspections program. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency successfully monitored the Yongbyon complex in the 1990s, Kim managed to hide his uranium program. A senior Administration official worries: "To be credible, anything we come up with is going to require a level of transparency well beyond anything in the past we've had with North Korea."
The Administration is betting heavily that multilateral talks -- rather than Clinton's bilateral approach -- will make a difference. Pyongyang's neighbors have a strong incentive to pressure Kim to get in line. But the neighborhood support may not be as united as President Bush might like. Chinese diplomacy helped lead to the talks -- Beijing recently sent an envoy to both Washington and Pyongyang. But China is reluctant to cut off fuel to the North, as the Bush team advocates, because doing so could produce a flood of refugees.
If Kim Jong Il balks or fails to agree to intensive inspections, Washington will face a difficult decision. When Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with inspections, Bush sent in the U.S. military. In heavily armed North Korea, that option is far riskier and could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. In the end, Bush may have to settle for not much more than an updated and expanded version of the 1994 pact with Pyongyang. Hobbling, rather than ending, Kim's nuclear ambitions may be the best the Administration can do.
By Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady