Commentary Type

Partially True Confessions: How Big is the North Korea Deal?

Op-ed in Newsweek


North Korea's recent nuclear confession and the quick response from US President George W. Bush bring us closer to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But there are many more steps left. North Korea's disclosure was conspicuous for what it omitted: bombs. It laid out some details of Pyongyang's plutonium-based weapons program, but much of that information is not new. The Koreans admitted that they had moved spent fuel rods and reprocessed them into fissile material, which we knew-but we still don't know how much they have. North Korea has an unknown number of weapons, and the statement shed no light on those. Pyongyang did invite foreign news organizations to film the demolition of the Yongbyon reactor's cooling tower for a fee. But this was a publicity stunt.

The declaration also did not cover Pyongyang's alleged uranium-enrichment program and its various foreign weapons deals, including suspected assistance for Syria.

This might explain why President Bush's response was fast but also hesitant. He lifted restrictions on commerce with North Korea and told Congress he planned to remove Pyongyang from the list of terrorism sponsors. But the White House hedged by preserving some existing sanctions and saying the rewards would be reversed if Pyongyang's confession turns out to be inaccurate.

Lifting the trade restrictions will have a minimal impact. North Korea will remain one of a few countries that does not have normal trade relations with the United States, meaning its exports will continue to be subjected to punitive tariffs of up to 90 percent.

Removing North Korea from the terrorism list means that Washington can now legally support it for membership in international financial organizations such as the World Bank. But the White House is under no obligation to actually do so. North Korea also remains excluded from US government programs that encourage trade and investment.

North Korea's declaration will trigger a reconvening of the Six-Party Talks, which includes China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The inadequate nature of the declaration guarantees there will be yet another round of negotiations in which North Korea will reveal a bit more in return for further concessions. It is no accident that up to 50,000 metric tons of US food aid is expected to arrive in North Korea early this month.

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