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Testing North Korea

With its assets unfrozen, can Pyongyang be induced to disarm? Iran will be watching.

June 20, 2007

NOW COMES THE hard part with North Korea.

Washington struggled for more than four months to find a way to return to Pyongyang $25 million in blacklisted funds that had been frozen by the U.S. Treasury Department in a Macao bank. Unable to move the funds without breaking American law or subjecting the recipient bank to U.S. legal sanctions, the Bush administration finally hit on the clever idea of having the Federal Reserve transfer the money. That solved the immediate problem. But questions about whether North Korea can regain access to international banking remain unanswered.

And the money was the easy part. Much thornier are the negotiations about when, how and in what order North Korea will own up to and begin to dismantle its nuclear programs. It's vital to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons that the United States and its allies try to agree on a roadmap for Pyongyang's full nuclear disarmament. Further delays, distractions or failures now would be an implicit admission that North Korea has become a nuclear weapons state -- and that the world is powerless to do much about it. Tehran will be watching the outcome.

The historic Feb. 13 agreement between the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and North Korea was no more than a rough sketch of a disarmament process. All of the truly critical issues have yet to be negotiated. First is the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Following the unfreezing of its funds, North Korea invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to Pyongyang to talk about how to monitor the disabling of the facility, but this begs the question: What does "disabling" mean? North Korea wants to shut Yongbyon down in such a way that its bomb-making apparatus could be restarted within days. The United States and its allies want measures that would require months or years to reverse.

Then there's the matter of "disclosure" and what may realistically be demanded of Pyongyang. North Korea has pledged to disclose all of its nuclear facilities and materiel -- presumably including any warheads, bomb-grade plutonium and uranium enrichment equipment that are stashed away deep in its infamous caves. Verifying Pyongyang's declaration could take months. Meanwhile, North Korea will be pressing for the aid promised by South Korea -- and eventually the unspecified benefits that have been dangled by the West.

A lasting detente would require convincing Kim Jong Il that the U.S. and its allies will not seek to topple the North Korean leader if he abandons his nuclear weapons. That will take some doing. North Korea has termed its nukes a "deterrent" to regime change. Perhaps such existential mistrust cannot be resolved at the negotiating table. But there is no better place to try.

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