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Nuclear remission

A resolution to North Korea's bomb program looks closer than ever, thanks to a shift in U.S. policy.

July 10, 2007

THE ARCHITECTS of North Korea's putative nuclear disarmament are holding their breath this week. There's a lot riding on the events of the next few days or weeks -- including the success or failure of a new diplomatic approach by Washington to the baffling regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

Under the terms of a disarmament accord reached in February by the United States, North Korea and four other nations (South Korea, China, Japan and Russia), Pyongyang is supposed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant in exchange for economic and political assistance, including 50,000 tons of oil. The deal was in limbo for months as Kim's regime fussed over $25 million frozen in a Macao bank, but after U.S. officials arranged to have the money released, Pyongyang suggested that it would close the plant as soon as it received a tenth of the oil. On Thursday, South Korea will ship 6,200 tons north.

After years of broken promises and overheated rhetoric from Kim, nobody in Washington is naive enough to take him at his word. Yet Kim's adherence to some of the preliminary procedural niceties -- his regime agreed on verification terms with U.N. inspectors, after kicking them out of the country in 2002 -- seems to have generated unusual giddiness at the State Department. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials have even begun studying ways to formally end the Korean War, settled in 1953 with an armistice rather than a permanent peace treaty.

A bit of wishful thinking is understandable, given the shift in Washington's diplomatic culture. The neoconservatives who favored tougher sanctions and opposed any concessions to Kim's regime have been either purged or silenced by the Bush administration. The new bunch is eager to prove that diplomacy can work.

We'd like to believe they're right. Kim's decision on whether to close Yongbyon will be the first test, but far from the only one. Some believe the plutonium-producing plant is nearing the end of its useful life anyway. The February pact also calls for Pyongyang to disclose its other nuclear activities, including its presumed uranium-enrichment program. The odds are good that even if the plant is shuttered, Kim will play his usual stalling game.

Closing Yongbyon would only be a first step, but it beats standing still or moving backward, which is all the neocons ever managed to do. It might even mark the beginning of the end of a 57-year-old war started by men who are long dead. Just don't hold your breath.

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