NORTH KOREA HAS ALWAYS been one of the sternest tests of the Bush administration’s diplomacy, and in the space of 24 hours on Monday it showed why. In the morning the communist state agreed to give up its nuclear program, which the president hailed as “a wonderful first step.” But by nightfall Pyongyang seemed to have changed its mind, leaving the administration with a sadly familiar lament: That’s not what they told us.
The confusion was not entirely unexpected, given North Korea’s history of erratic behavior. And though the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea has hardly been a model of diplomacy, the president can claim some vindication for insisting on multilateral talks, instead of agreeing to one-on-one negotiations.
The administration and Pyongyang have been engaged in talks for nearly three years, and the latest round of negotiations, like the rest, included four other nations with an interest in peace and stability in the region: China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Under a pact agreed to on Monday morning, North Korea basically agreed to end its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic and energy assistance. Then, on Monday night, Pyongyang said “there would be no change in the nuclear issue” -- meaning it would not dismantle its programs -- unless the U.S. provided it with a light-water reactor. The U.S. and Japan have rightly opposed that demand, saying that North Korea cannot be trusted to use nuclear material for peaceful purposes. The morning agreement avoided the question by saying it would be discussed “at an appropriate time.”
Both the U.S. and North Korea have had their moments of intransigence in this process, but Pyongyang has been more reliably unreasonable. That is why the Bush administration wanted to involve other nations in the talks; not only would they expose Pyongyang’s paranoia to a wider audience, they would make it harder for North Korea to deny any agreement it did make.
Reaction to North Korea’s pronouncement proved the value of the arrangement. Japan and South Korea both said North Korea should honor its morning commitments, as did U.S. diplomats. The evening’s developments put more pressure on China to keep North Korea in line. It was the Chinese who kept both the U.S. and Pyongyang involved in the negotiations when they faltered.
Even its most ardent supporters freely acknowledged that Monday morning’s agreement was more a statement of principles than a set of goals; the difficult work of applying those principles would begin at the talks in November. Those talks just got harder. But the value of the agreement is that at least the principles are now clear.