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Show us the nukes

North Korea's reluctance to come clean about its weapons program must be met with a united front.

January 07, 2008

To jaw-jaw is indeed better than to war-war, as Winston Churchill opined. And it was vital that the United States sit down with North Korea to try to figure out what terms -- if any -- would persuade it to abandon its nuclear arsenal. But for diplomacy to succeed, each side must conclude that it will be worse off without a deal. North Korea appears to need some reminding.

Pyongyang failed to meet an agreed-on deadline of the end of 2007 to make its full and complete nuclear declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. has insisted that North Korea must finally come clean about how many nuclear weapons it has, how much weapons-grade plutonium it has produced, the status of any efforts to enrich uranium, and any transfer of nuclear materiel or technology to other nations. (And what exactly was its role in building the Syrian nuclear facilities that Israel bombed on Sept. 6?) But the two sides have never agreed on a definition of what "full and complete" means.

Washington has rightly concluded that it's better to have a tardy and complete reckoning than a quick and dishonest one. Instead, however, Pyongyang put out an Orwellian statement on Friday in which it appeared to claim that it has already made its declaration. To this, the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and the IAEA must offer a unanimous reply: Come clean or face unpleasant consequences.

North Korea's intentions are, as always, unknowable. It may hope that by blustering and trying to split the United States from its allies and the Bush administration from its detractors, it will succeed in extracting more aid in return for its compliance. Or it may be stalling, trying to run out the clock on President Bush's term in hopes of getting a better deal from his successor. Or Kim Jong Il may not plan to give up his nuclear weapons at all, gambling that eventually the world will learn to live with North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. (After all, it worked for India and Pakistan.)

To convince Kim that that there is no point in stalling, all of the U.S. presidential candidates in both parties should say they're prepared to normalize relations with North Korea only if it forswears nuclear weapons, allows verification and stops proliferating. The candidates also should vow not only to enforce tough United Nations financial sanctions against North Korea, but to devise new ways to isolate and punish Kim's regime should he renege.

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