Now the hard part

September 20, 2005

The surest thing that can be said about the multinational talks that finally led to a major new agreement yesterday on North Korea dismantling its nuclear programs is that the latest negotiations did not fall apart as had been feared.

The agreement could be the start of something really big - a milestone leading to formal U.S. recognition of Pyongyang's sovereignty, thereby finally ending the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

But given North Korea's long history of unpredictability and duplicity, it could just be a ruse - to buy Pyongyang time - that ultimately amounts to nothing.

For now, the agreement appears to open the way for even tougher negotiations to hammer out the many critical and contentious details that, of necessity, were left unresolved.

This much is settled: North Korea got assurance that the United States would not invade it, the possibility of U.S. diplomatic recognition, and the promise of significant energy aid from South Korea. And most important, America got Pyongyang's commitment to dismantle its nuclear programs and weapons - in a verifiable way.

Altogether, that's welcome progress. But to get to those principles, the Bush administration dropped two key demands. It had wanted North Korea to get rid of its nukes before getting any aid and to bar it from retaining any peaceful nuclear power program. Instead, yesterday's deal left open the possibility that North Korea could be provided with a light-water reactor for power sometime in the future.

Therein lies the rub: The six-nation talks - among the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - are to resume in November, and the timing of aid to the North and whether it returns to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and ultimately gets that civilian reactor will be among the very hard issues still on the table.

In the end, if yesterday's agreement bears fruit, the result might look all too similar to the Agreed Framework, the nuclear agreement the Clinton administration struck with North Korea in 1994, that Pyongyang immediately began cheating on and that the Bush administration came into office disavowing. Four years later, with the North widely believed to possess as many as a half-dozen nuclear weapons, that's come to look a lot better to this White House.

Given the North's history, the watchword in going forward is going to have to be verification. Not the old saw "trust but verify." Just verify - always a difficult matter with a secretive country full of deep manmade caves in which a few nuclear devices could be tucked.

That's where China's continued involvement is much needed. In the long run, China, this deal's broker, might be able to claim success for its first significant effort at mediating a regional security issue. But it's going to have to play a heavy hand in its enforcement - otherwise, any pact might not be worth its ink.

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