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April 19, 2008
Now He’s Ready to Deal
President Bush’s latest compromise for ending North Korea’s nuclear program is agitating critics — outside his administration and in. It is an imperfect solution. But imperfect may be all one can expect after Mr. Bush wasted so much time refusing to consider any compromise at all.
For six years, Mr. Bush rejected any meaningful negotiations. The result? Pyongyang kept adding to its plutonium stockpile — it now has enough for eight or more bombs — and tested a nuclear device.
When Mr. Bush finally agreed to try diplomacy — and gave a serious diplomat, Christopher Hill, the room to negotiate — Washington correctly insisted on a “complete and correct” accounting of all North Korea’s nuclear activities as an important step toward dismantling the program. Now Mr. Bush is willing to accept less.
The North Koreans won’t have to come clean — at least for now — on their fledgling uranium-based weapons program, which American officials believe has been shut down. Nor will they be required to publicly admit to selling Syria the technology and know-how to build a nuclear reactor. Israel destroyed that project last September. Instead, officials say, the United States will stipulate what it knows about these programs, and Pyongyang only has to “acknowledge” these “concerns.”
Of course, if a Democratic president had made similar compromises, hard-line Republicans probably would have called for impeachment. That said, Mr. Hill may be right that this is the only chance to push the process to the next step: getting North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-based reactor at Yongbyon and eventually surrender all its nuclear fuel and weapons.
That is the clear and present danger. The North Koreans have already shut down Yongbyon — an important but insufficient accomplishment.
Presuming the current compromise comes together — the two sides remain divided over the size of North Korea’s plutonium fuel stocks — North Korea would be removed from America’s list of terrorist states and from sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act and receive a large shipment of heavy fuel oil.
All of this is especially frustrating when one considers how much safer the world would be if Mr. Bush had picked up where President Bill Clinton left off in 2001. In those days, the North Koreans only had enough plutonium for one or two bombs. Activities at Yongbyon were frozen under a 1994 agreement. Mr. Bush and his aides detested that agreement, and as soon as they discovered Pyongyang was trying to build a uranium-based weapons program, they declared that diplomacy pointless.
The hard-liners are right on one thing: No commitment from North Korea should ever be taken at face value. We’re not convinced it will ever trade its nuclear capability, even for vastly better diplomatic and economic ties with the world.
That is why the emerging deal will require the most transparency and verification possible, including full access to its plutonium production records. The Bush administration must push harder on this. And if North Korea is found cheating, the world will have to impose even tougher sanctions.
As we said, it is an imperfect solution. But, presuming the deal isn’t weakened even more, it may be the only choice. ------------------------------------------------------