A missed deadline but the door's still open
The bad news on nuclear proliferation is that North Korea is unlikely to stick to a timetable to begin closing down its nuclear programme by this weekend's deadline. The good news is that it says it is not walking away from the deal. The disappointment will surprise no one at all familiar with negotiations with the hermit Stalinist state. They are characterised by a step back for every step forward. Pyongyang has lived up to its reputation as a difficult and unreliable negotiating partner.
In this instance, however, there remains reason for guarded optimism that North Korea will indeed begin dismantling its nuclear establishment. But a world threatened with proliferation in both North Korea and Iran can expect to be kept on the edge of its seat for a while yet.
North Korea agreed to the deal two months ago in the six-nation talks on its nuclear programme brokered by neighbour and friend China. It was supposed to take effect within 60 days. The stumbling block has been North Korea's access to US$25 million in funds in accounts frozen, until now, in Macau's Banco Delta Asia after the United States designated the bank a 'prime money-laundering concern'. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has demanded to see his money before honouring the agreement.
This week Pyongyang told an American delegation led by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson that once it has the money it will take the initial step to shut down its main nuclear reactor within one day - inviting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit Pyongyang to draft terms for shutting it down.
The US agreed three weeks ago to the full release of the money and Macau authorities said yesterday it can be withdrawn by any person authorised to operate on the accounts. It remains to be seen, if it is ever revealed, how it is to be delivered to a country excommunicated by banks anxious not to get offside with American financial authorities. Also in doubt is how long it will be before Pyongyang declares itself satisfied it has got all the money. It does not appear by any means a single, simple, transparent transaction.
If and when that obstacle is finally overcome, no one should forget the warning by the chairman of the six-nation talks, Vice-Foreign Minister Wu Dawei , that numerous other difficulties and obstacles lie ahead. One of the first will be the UN Security Council sanctions imposed last October in the wake of a nuclear test and test-firing of missiles.
However, given North Korea's generally unco-operative participation in the negotiations, progress so far amounts to an important achievement. Under Beijing's patient auspices, the talks dragged on over more than three years, with Pyongyang walking out over the bank-account freeze - and staying out for more than a year.
North Korea's struggling economy and its impoverished people stand to benefit from further progress. In return for shutting down the reactor and a plutonium processing plant, and allowing verification by UN inspectors, it will get 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil. For disabling its nuclear facilities and revealing all its activities - steps still to be negotiated - it will receive the balance of about 950,000 tonnes of fuel oil or the equivalent in economic, energy and humanitarian aid.
Most importantly, the world would be made a safer place. The murky issue of the US$25 million should not be allowed to drag on or get out of proportion. Pragmatism on all sides is needed to ensure the much more important nuclear agreement works.