One thing George W. Bush has been right about the past several months is North Korea. After six years of the silent treatment, during which North Korean leader Kim Jong Il built his nuclear arsenal from two potential weapons to eight or ten, and tested a bomb besides, the president was persuaded by his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to restart the six-party talks in Beijing and hold direct discussions between Washington and Pyongyang on the sidelines. 

So North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. convened on February 13th of last year and reached an agreement whereby Kim Jong Il would shut down and  dismantle his nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, declare all his nuclear programs and, eventually, foreswear the making of those kinds of weapons. In return the U.S. would take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism, open negotiations to normalize many fronts and, with some of the other countries, supply substantial quantities of fuel.

Some contend that Pyongyang has not yet given up very much, that Yongbyon is an old, Chernobyl-like facility and hardly a loss. Another observer pointed out that the five nations are not of one mind: the U.S. really wants to get rid of Kim Jong Il’s nuclear weapons, Russia wants to make money out of whatever develops, China is more interested in the process than the product, South Korea wants to avert chaos in the north that would send a flood of refugees into its economy and Japan is distracted by other things, such as public outrage at home over some Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea and help captive for years.

But even if there were implacable unity all around, that would not change the hard fact that we may have bumped into Kim Jong Il’s red line that always was and ever will be as long as he’s in power: Kim Jong Il will not give up his nuclear program. It’s the only card he has to play. Moreover, a video showing North Koreans working on what seemed to be a nuclear reactor in Syria–the one that was bombed by Israel last September–has inflamed Republicans on the right and hardened their stand against any deal at all.  Some Democrats concur, at least in part.  Even Sen. Joe Biden, who  can be counted on to be reasonable, has said that unless the administration can demonstrate that North Korea has stopped the proliferation of nuclear weapons, no sanctions should be lifted.

So, how do we cope with such a situation? President Bush and Secretary Rice would be wise to support the plan worked out in Singapore last month by negotiator Christopher Hill. Under that agreement, the U.S. would remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, which means that some economic sanctions would be lifted. North Korea would not be forced to admit to its mischief in Syria. Instead it would recognize that this was a matter of concern to the United States. In addition, Kim Jong Il would give a full accounting of his effort to produce plutonium, though he would not be required to disclose his work to enrich uranium with equipment from Pakistan. Eighteen thousand pages of plutonium documents already have been turned over to the State Department.

Chris Hill argues that the big issue in North Korea is plutonium, not uranium. Another observer has noted that we know what was going on with Syria.  A proper confession might be good for somebody’s soul, but it won’t solve anything.

The key is to keep the inspectors inside North Korea and to keep on talking while we play out the long clock of the current regime in Pyongyang. This is a marathon, not a sprint. President Bush is on the right track. This is one course he needs to stay.      

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