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Posted : 2008-09-24 17:47
Updated : 2008-09-24 17:47

Nuclear Backslide

Parties Should Put Themselves in Another's Shoes

The six-party process to denuclearize North Korea seems to hardly take one step forward before taking a half step back.

It doesn't have much meaning to debate whether the reclusive regime's recent signal to restart its nuclear program is real or just a bargaining gesture, for it could be both depending on the passage of time and the other side's response.

Nor should it matter much whether Kim Jong-il in his sickbed made the decision; or whether some hard-line militarists are trying to turn back the nuclear clock, taking advantage of their Dear Leader's infirmity.

Longtime watchers of North Korea would admit Pyongyang has seldom eaten its words in the course of the five-year, stop-and-go nuclear negotiations in good ways or bad, as long as a written agreement is concerned, whether one calls it nuclear blackmail or diplomatic brinkmanship.

The problem lies in what is not written most of the times, like now. The latest obstacle concerns how deeply and widely the North should allow U.S. officials' inspection activities. By the same words ``verification protocol," Washington means the international practices of unexpected searches and sample collection. Pyongyang calls them ``burglar-like house raids."

If negotiated settlement of a crisis is the process of doves persuading hawks in their respective sides into accepting a gradual approach, this case is no exception.

The recent impasse began when the U.S. conservatives attacked the 2005 agreement on freezing plutonium-based facilities, calling for the Bush administration to also take issue with uranium programs and suspected proliferation to Syria. Such assertion is not wrong in itself, but one cannot solve a complicated problem in one try, as long-accumulated distrust cannot be dissolved in one day.

Pyongyang is also not free from blame in translating the accord in too narrow a sense. If the isolationist regime really decided to abandon its nuclear program in return for economic aid and diplomatic recognition, there are few reasons why it wouldn't accept the verification protocol. Any further recalcitrance would only deepen international suspicion about its real intentions.

The North Korean leadership might have decided to wait out the U.S. presidential elections, while gaining time until Kim Jong-il fully regains his health and preparing to restart the Yongbyon facilities or pretending to do so.

It had better not do so, as any protracted impasse is feared to completely kill any remaining momentum for the continuity of the process. U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill made a meaningful suggestion as a compromise in this regard, by which the North agrees to an international verification regime, and the U.S. delays its implementation. Pyongyang is advised to accept the idea, if proposed in a concrete form.

Fortunately, both the United States and Beijing do not appear to want to abandon the process, as shown by the agreement between the top leaders of the two countries in a recent telephone conversation. Washington and Seoul have also decided to push ahead with energy aid to the North.

At the inter-Korean energy talks last week, the Northern delegates gave the impression of wanting the South Korean government to play a more active role as mediator. For the Lee Myung-bak administration, the ongoing deadlock can be an opportunity to increase its leverage, considering both Washington and Tokyo will have their hands full with general elections.

The problem is, the incumbent government seems to have neither the ability nor willingness to do so.

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