"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Monday, September 19, 2005

Two Cheers For the President 

This may be very good news:
North Korea pledged Monday to abandon its entire nuclear energy program, but U.S. officials including President Bush and other diplomats participating in six-party talks warned there would be a long, difficult road of detailed negotiations before achieving the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

"Now there's a way forward," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting Monday called to discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"And part of the way forward is for the North Koreans to understand that we're serious about this and that we expect there to be a verifiable process," he added.

"In other words, they have said, in principle, that they will abandon their weapons programs. And what we have said is, great. That's a wonderful step forward. But now we've got to verify whether or not that happens . . . The question is, over time, will all parties adhere to the agreement?"

Should the administration actually succeed in persuading North Korea to disarm, I will certainly forego my habitual Bush-bashing to recognize the importance of such a development. And indeed, this may be Bush's "Nixon in China" moment, in which he demonstrates that obstinacy and inflexibility sometimes - sometimes! - pays off.

But let's keep that champagne corked just a while longer, shall we?

At the risk of being a party pooper, I feel compelled to note that the actual terms of this agreement are about as well delineated as the new Iraqi constitution:
Pointing down the difficult road ahead, the chief Japanese negotiator, Kenichiro Sasae, warned that reaching the statement of principles embodied in Monday's accord does not guarantee an end to North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which for more than two decades have provoked concerns in Northeast Asia.

"On the contrary," he said in a comment to other delegation chiefs, "we will have to continue to work to reach a concrete agreement with regard to implementation of the adopted principles, in particular concrete procedures and details of verification measures toward realization of prompt nuclear abandonment by the DPRK."

Surprisingly, diplomats said, the main sticking point in this round of negotiations was not convincing North Korea to make the paramount commitment to give up nuclear weapons and research. Rather, they explained, it was North Korea's demand for a light-water nuclear reactor to produce electricity in return for giving up the other programs.

The United States adamantly opposed the demand, saying North Korea could not be trusted since it already had converted the Yongbyon research reactor into a source of weapons-grade plutonium. The only possible outcome, U.S. negotiators said, was agreement to complete, verified abandonment of all nuclear programs.

As the stalemate dragged on, some diplomats predicted the only solution was another recess. To avoid a clear-cut collapse during a previous round of talks, China called a recess Aug. 7 after 13 days of negotiations. In theory, the current talks were only an extension of that round, the fourth since the process get underway.

So, maybe the stalemate has been broken, but it's a bit early to say the problem has been solved. The North Korean regime has shown itself fond of one-step-forward, one-step-back diplomacy in the past (just ask Bill Clinton, who was pretty sure he had the problem solved a while ago).

Also, at the risk of being churlish, I am interested in the timing of this announcement. If North Korea slides off the radar screen, then the Axis of Evil is reduced to one charter member - Iran. That would be convenient, given our continuing difficulties getting the rest of the world to play ball with us on that score.

Thus, I remain skeptical - but, if they can actually close the deal, I will happily give credit where it's due. For now, the story is, as they say, "developing."




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