A Dangerous Impasse Is Avoided

Last month, when North Korea’s dictator-for-life Kim Il Sung died at 82, observers wondered whether the much-anticipated event would prove to be the beginning of the end or merely the end of the beginning. Would son Kim Jong Il, his successor, establish a government in Pyongyang that would be as difficult, unpredictable and menacing as his father’s? Or would he seek to nudge this last outpost of hard-core communism, with its dilapidated economy and rigid secret-police internal controls, into the 20th Century?

The answer is still far from clear, but in Geneva over the weekend, U.S and North Korean negotiators reached unprecedented understandings on the dangerous nuclear-weapons issue. North Korea, whose secretive nuclear program has been a growing source of severe tensions for Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Washington, in effect says it is willing to terminate any and all ambitions for nuclear weapons if in return the West will help it modernize its nuclear-power facilities, reduce barriers to trade and investment in North Korea and move toward normal diplomatic relations.

U.S. officials hailed the Geneva development, of course, but perhaps the most significant immediate reaction came from South Korea’s foreign ministry, which called it a move toward “final resolution of the North Korean nuclear program.”

The agreement is certainly far from complete. The issue of the 8,000 spent fuel rods that were recently removed from North Korea’s secretive nuclear complex at Yongbyon obviously needs more work and Washington and Pyongyang only agreed to diplomatic baby steps in mutual recognition--low-level “liaison” offices in the two capitals.


But the Geneva understanding represents a significant step forward--and comes as a tremendous relief to Korean-Americans in the United States, so many of whom have family in both North and South Korea. They have watched the growing tension and harshly escalating rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington with increasing concern for their relatives in both Koreas. The news from Geneva this weekend was cause for celebration.

The news no doubt had a similar cheering effect on the battle-scarred Clinton Administration, reeling from the embarrassing crime-bill vote. The North Korean agreement is a clear feather in its cap.