North Korea Comes Back to the Table

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The perpetually frosty state of relations between North Korea and the U.S. has meant that Washington's diplomats don't rack up many frequent-flyer miles traveling to the isolated capital of Pyongyang. Prior to last week, the last time a senior American diplomat visited was October 2002, and then only to confront the North with secret intelligence about its nuclear-weapons program. But on June 21, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the U.S.'s lead negotiator in the six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nukes, showed up in Pyongyang unexpectedly, and this time the purpose was not confrontation but conciliation. After two days of talks, Hill announced Pyongyang was going to abide by a February agreement to shut down its lone nuclear reactor. A dispute over $25 million of North Korea's funds which had been frozen in a Macau bank had finally been resolved — the North got its money back — and now the nuclear agreement — "the main act between the North and the outside world," as one of Hill's counterparts put it — could again move forward.

It was an unmistakably hopeful sign that the deal Pyongyang signed in February but ignored until last week was still in force, and that North Korea dictator Kim Jong Il might actually be living up to its terms. Days after Hill's visit, North Korea allowed into the country a group of U.N. inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who are there to verify the shutdown of the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. Pyongyang has also agreed to account for and eliminate its stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-making material the North may have accumulated in the years since Kim kicked out IAEA inspectors in 2002. Compliance brings immediate benefits to Kim's government. In return for shutting down Yongbyon, which diplomats hope will occur as early as next month, the North will receive 50,000 tons of fuel oil from the U.S. and the other participants in the six-party talks: South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

But after that things are likely to get complicated again. In return for eliminating all its nuclear materials — in a time frame left ominously unspecified in the agreement — the North is to receive further economic aid (including nearly one million tons of additional fuel oil or its equivalent to power its electricity grid) as well as a long-sought diplomatic concession: direct negotiations with Washington that could eventually lead, according to the agreement, to normalization of ties between the U.S. and North Korea. As a signal to Pyongyang that the Bush Administration means what it says about establishing diplomatic ties, Hill in a June 22 press conference in Seoul said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was prepared to attend six-party talks in Beijing this summer. That would be the first meeting between a U.S. Secretary of State and senior North Korean officials since Madeleine Albright met with Kim in Pyongyang in late 2000.

Washington has been bartering with North Korea over nukes for 13 troubled years. The first time Pyongyang promised to halt nuclear-weapons development was in 1994, a deal that was eventually abrogated after the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret program to enrich uranium for bombs. The level of mistrust on both sides is deep and abiding. "It's never a straight line from point A to point B, no matter what [the agreement] the North has signed might say," acknowledges one diplomat involved in the six-party talks. "You obviously hope for the best, but you're always on your guard, and you just keep working it." Hill himself acknowledged the most obvious potential deal breaker is the alleged uranium-enrichment program. The U.S. claims Pyongyang admitted to such a program when confronted in 2002, but North Korean officials have since denied its existence. The U.S. appears intent on pressing for full disclosure. "We need to get somewhere soon" on the issue, Hill said in Seoul.

There are other potential snags ahead. Critics in Washington say the North will never surrender all of its nuclear weapons, no matter what the incentives. "It beggars the imagination to believe that the North Korean regime will give up what's been its policy for at least the last 25 years [the pursuit of nuclear weapons] thanks to the sound of the Chris Hill's sweet voice," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. But if Kim does indeed shut down his reactor next month, that will, undeniably, represent progress. And as one foreign diplomat put it, considering that North Korea conducted its first nuclear-weapons test eight months ago, "a little progress beats the alternative, doesn't it?"