Thursday, March 01, 2007

North Korea roundup

Some good news, bad news out of North Korea.

First, the bad news. Despite promising to come clean on its nuclear program, North Korea is denying that it has an uranium-enrichment program.

Now, maybe it doesn't. The intelligence on the matter isn't bulletproof, and we have a pretty bad track record when it comes to assessing nuclear capabilities. But their uranium program is the reason we pulled the plug on the Clinton-era Agreed Framework, and there has been some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence that at the very least they were trying to set up such a program. Given that history, I'm not willing to give the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt; it is up to them to provide enough access that inspectors can satisfy themselves that no such program exists.

The good news is that North Korea met with South Korea today and reaffirmed its committment to dismantle its nuclear program -- all part of a bid for humanitarian aid from the South.

The North Korean language was unusually clear and strong:

"President Kim Yong-nam said the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula was late President Kim Il-sung's last guidance and they would make efforts to turn it into reality," a South Korean official involved in the talks said on Thursday....

"(Unification) Minister Lee Jae-joung said strongly that it was very important to conscientiously implement the initial steps for the dismantlement of the North's nuclear programs by soundly complying with the February 13 agreement," the official told reporters in Pyongyang.

Invoking Kim Il-sung strikes me as a particularly important step, but I'm no Korea expert.

North Korea has to be enjoying the fruits of its agreement: besides meeting with South Korea, it has scheduled talks with both Japan and the United States on normalizing relations. Such positive reinforcement offers both practical advantages and a facesaving way for them to claim benefits from the agreement. Playing nice is a cheap way to encourage compliance -- as long as we continue to insist on a robust inspection scheme to verify the destruction of their program.

The real test comes in the next 50 days or so, when North Korea is supposed to take the first concrete steps and shut down its main reactor. But for now, everyone's saying the right things.

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