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Multilateralism worked

The White House's flexibility and willingness to listen helped usher in a hopeful North Korea deal.

February 14, 2007

IN AN INCREASINGLY scary world, score one small point for pragmatism and global sanity: North Korea has agreed in principle to a nuclear disarmament deal.

The very tentative one-page agreement struck in Beijing on Tuesday is only a shaky first step after years of paralysis. It could well collapse within its first 60 days, when the famously erratic Pyongyang government has a deadline to seal up its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear plant, make a full declaration of its nuclear activities and allow international inspectors back into the country. It doesn't guarantee that North Korea will take the next, crucial step of placing its plutonium -- whether raw or already fashioned into warheads -- under international safeguards. It doesn't deal with the enriched-uranium program that Pyongyang now denies. And yes, North Korea will receive a bit of fuel oil to sweeten the deal, something the Bush administration had long viewed as anathema.

Conservatives, predictably, are hollering betrayal. The Bush administration's once preeminent hawk, former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, said the deal "contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy he's been following for the past six years."

Bolton is right. President Bush has changed course -- abandoning a failed policy in favor of one that might have a prayer of succeeding. For years, hard-liners insisted that providing any incentives, including direct U.S. contacts with Pyongyang, would reward North Korea's bad behavior. "I don't do carrots," Bolton once remarked. Instead, the administration sought to enlist North Korea's neighbors in isolating Kim Jong Il until he capitulated.

But that theory proved unworkable when China and South Korea refused to apply sufficient pressure, then blamed the stalemated negotiations on White House inflexibility. Only when Bush acceded to the other countries' desire to include the fuel component in the deal did the talks get unblocked. This is what multilateralism looks like.

The tactical shift doesn't mean that the U.S. has abandoned its principles; the White House still needs to be prepared to abort this deal if it ultimately proves as hollow as previous accords. But if North Korea reneges on its promises this time, it will be double-crossing its last sympathizers, China and South Korea, as well as Russia, Japan and the United States.

So conservatives have little to fear; if North Korea scuttles the deal, the shared responsibility would make it all the easier to ratchet up international sanctions if necessary. The administration deserves recognition, not scorn, for helping to make even this tentative bit of hope possible.

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