May 23, 2019


Once again, the nuclear talks with North Korea have stalled. Pyongyang is preparing to restart plutonium production. And our diplomat, after a hasty repair visit, has left the capital apparently empty-handed.

President Bush, after starting out rejecting the Clinton “framework” for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, resumed six-nation talks two years ago. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice evidently persuaded him that threats and name-calling had failed and that diplomacy was worth a new try. It might even burnish his legacy. But now it looks like further progress may be put over to the next presidency.

Sure, there have been complications. North Korea’s President Kim Jong Il, who had been pressing for an overall Korean-U.S. peace, is ill, leaving his hard-liners with increased influence. And Japan’s new conservative government is renewing its insistence on a final settlement of a dispute over Korean abduction of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s.

But the United States has its hard-liners, too, who blocked negotiations for six years.

The talks shepherded by China agreed on a phased set of concessions, stage by stage so that each side could see results rather than rely on trust. In the first phase, North Korea closed down its plutonium production and the U.S. began shipping much-needed oil and other economic aid.

In phase two, subject of an interim agreement of Oct. 3, 2007, North Korea provided a more-or-less accounting of all its nuclear weapons programs and arsenal. In return, President Bush announced this past June that he was taking North Korea off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a hardliner against talks with North Korea, said, according to The New York Times, “This is a sad, sad day … I think we’ve been taken to the cleaners.”

President Bush now has put off removing North Korea from the blacklist and has added a condition that North Korea first must agree to inspection of all its facilities. While inspection and verification will be essential, they had been part of phase three. Putting them in phase two amounts to moving the goal posts, so North Korean outrage was to be expected.

So phase two is on hold. Phase three calls for complete dismantling of nuclear plants, verification, disposal of plutonium, exchange of ambassadors, normal commerce, and, at last, a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s. It must now wait.

A more consistent diplomatic approach from the next administration is now the best hope for progress.

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