Sense finally prevails in Pyongyang talks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 2008, 12:00am

One small step forward by North Korea and the US; one large step for mankind. The political fight to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear bomb-making activities seems at last, in the dying days of the Bush presidency, to be entering a serious phase.

Washington has finally bowed to Pyongyang's request to remove it from the US list of sponsors of terrorism - making the renegade state eligible for international loans and sundry other economic benefits - in return for it agreeing to again allow inspections to verify its promise to freeze nuclear activities.

After nine years of erratic US policies - met by equally erratic and bellicose North Korean ones - the negotiations have ended up almost where they started following the highly fruitful diplomacy of the Clinton administration.

Well, not quite back to where the Clinton administration had to leave off. North Korea has now tripled the amount of nuclear weapons' material in store. Worse, it has exploded a nuclear bomb and probably has enough material for half a dozen more.

This must count as one of President George W. Bush's worst foreign-policy feats. Commitments made in tense but productive negotiations were not honoured. Mr Bush called the regime 'evil' and then offered aid. He refused to negotiate over the financial issues at stake with the money laundering of Macau's Banco Delta Asia - and then returned the frozen funds.

Fortunately, negotiations have been salvaged by a very determined US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who took personal charge and empowered a skilful principal negotiator, Christopher Hill, to burrow through the labyrinth of confusion and misunderstandings.

The force and frequency of US negotiating offers were stepped up. Pyongyang's twists and turns, and often appalling misbehaviour, were tolerated more. After North Korea exploded an underground nuclear device in October 2006, Dr Rice managed to persuade Mr Bush to dilute the rhetoric. Washington continued with more conventional diplomacy, sidelining the hardliners in the administration, including Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The push continued. Fuel aid and food were offered as carrots. Then, earlier this year, the offer bore fruit; the North agreed to disable its nuclear weapons and other facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. But when the US stalled on taking North Korea off its terrorism list, Pyongyang also stalled.

Now we have the breakthrough, with the bonus of the North agreeing to access to undeclared sites as well, but with the proviso the inspections are by 'mutual consent', leaving Pyongyang a card to play.

Fuel-oil aid was promised and hints aired that the work on the light-water nuclear reactor could resume. Still, there is enough ambiguity in the agreement to allow the North to barter for more concessions in the future.

Nevertheless, a wheel has turned, almost back to where Clinton left off. The next US president will have to pick up the baton - and hopefully sprint with it.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist