Hearts are fluttering once again among the disarmament folks over renewed hopes North Korea will finally take the first step toward giving up the nuclear ambitions of its leader, Kim Jong-il.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have visited Yongbyon, site of North Korea's primary nuclear facility. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has been received in Pyongyang. China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi urged Kim Jong-il last week to move things along. The Six-Party Talks central to this process are to resume this month or next.
Skeptics, however, have cautioned that not everything will go well. The North Korean regime has a long history of reneging on promises to other nations while keeping promises to the North Korean people, foremost of which is Mr. Kim's pledge to retain nuclear arms to deter what he sees as a U.S. threat.
Graham Allison, who specialized in arms control as a Clinton administration assistant defense secretary and is now at Harvard, wrote recently that even if the Yongbyon plant is disabled, much remains to execute an accord reached in February by the Six Parties — North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. It calls for North Korea to shut down all its nuclear sites.
Mr. Allison warned: "Expect lengthy slogging through incomplete records, all in Korean script, missed deadlines, disputes about who can visit where, and all the other antics" that have frustrated those who have dealt with North Korea.
Confronted with this likelihood, the United States appears to evolved have a new strategy, which is to play for time by adopting the North Korean tactic of talk, talk, and more talk until Mr. Kim either gives up his nuclear weapons or his regime collapses. Whiffs of dissent have recently been wafting from Pyongyang, making regime change a possibility.
Said an American insider: "The U.S. will take note of North Korea's nuclear weapons but we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear nation. We will never tolerate a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons."
The game afoot has ruled out military action to destroy North Korea's nuclear sites. Bombs and cruise missiles could do enormous damage but would most likely trigger a North Korean attack on South Korea. Tens of thousands of South Koreans would die in artillery barrages before South Korean and U.S. forces could overrun North Korean positions.
Instead, in this developing strategy, American negotiators will continue talking while carrying out what might be called the five "Nots." The U.S. will not:
c Extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea, thus depriving it of a status that Kim Jong-il is said to be eager to attain.
c Sign a treaty replacing the truce that ended the Korean War of 1950-53 because North Korea will not give assurances it will reduce its forces along the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
c Remove the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons that could strike North Korea from submarines in the Pacific or with ballistic missiles or bombers based in the United States.
c Offer substantial economic aid to a North Korea that has been stricken with famine, limping industrial output and financial disruption for a decade.
c Open trade and investment relations with a nation that, like China, could benefit from access to American markets, technology, and capital.
The Bush administration has already drawn fire about this strategy and can expect more, especially from China.
John Bolton, President George Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, reflected the so-called neo-conservatives in an article last week, asserting: "The Bush administration has effectively ended where North Korea policy is concerned, replaced for the next 18 months by a caretaker government of bureaucrats, technocrats and academics."
Chinese leaders have long said they will keep North Korea afloat. David Frum, of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in June that Beijing dreads a North Korean breakup. "Chinese leaders know that such a collapse," he said, "would unify the peninsula under a democratic government based in Seoul and aligned with the U.S. and Japan — for them, a terrifying outcome."
Nor will North Korea roll over easily. Rodong Shinmun, an official newspaper in Pyongyang, said last week that North Korea's "mighty war deterrent for self-defense has become an invincible shield for curbing reckless war provocations of the bellicose forces at home and abroad."
That doesn't sound much like a nation ready for nuclear disarmament.
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.