[Overseas view]Promising signs for further progress

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[Overseas view]Promising signs for further progress

Having seen only preliminary newspaper reports about the most recent six-party negotiations, my analysis of the implications is tentative. But I would offer these observations.
First, the negotiators managed to achieve significant, if limited, progress in translating the hopes reflected in the Feb. 13 agreement into a more concrete, practical commitment. From an American standpoint, there are several noteworthy benefits. North Korea’s plutonium production and reprocessing activities are being re-capped, albeit leaving North Korea with a larger inventory of fissionable material than they possessed when the Agreed Framework was abandoned in 2002.
Pyongyang also confirmed its intent to provide a list ― not entirely comprehensive, since information about its nuclear weapons will not be included ― of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year, along with specific arrangements for the disablement of core facilities at Yongbyon.
In return, the North received assurances that it will receive substantial heavy fuel oil deliveries, and an apparent promise that it will be taken off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (at a date yet to be announced). In addition, the United States reaffirmed its intent to fulfill unspecified commitments regarding the termination of “Trading with the Enemy Act” sanctions against North Korea.
There are a variety of loose ends. A blow-up over rumored North Korean transfers of nuclear-related materials to Syria ― an object of much recent press speculation ― was evidently avoided by a North Korean promise not to transfer such materials, technology or know-how, leaving what actually transpired in Syria a mystery. The North’s pledge to address U.S. concerns related to uranium-enrichment activities by the end of the year may remove a long-standing source of American disquiet. We will just have to wait and see. The absence of a timetable for taking the North off the state terrorism list has served to avert trouble between Washington and Tokyo. Buying some time should help, but the potential for discord on this subject persists. And whether an agreement has been reached over precisely what “disablement” requires remains unclear ― at least to me.
All things considered, the steps announced should inject a bit of momentum into the six-party negotiations. That represents what I would consider modest, yet welcome, progress toward the goal of denuclearization. The toughest problems, not surprisingly, have again been kicked down the road. In football parlance, the outcome, as one of my colleagues puts it, is closer to a first down than a touchdown. But the game goes on. That is about all that could be expected at this point.
Where do we go from here? Certainly Washington’s prompt approval of the proposed second-phase actions suggest that President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strongly support Chris Hill’s nuclear diplomacy. Indeed, both appear eager to press ahead on this front. That is scarcely surprising. The administration has seen little good news in the Middle East, where it has concentrated its attention since 9/11.
2008 is an election year ― not the best time to tackle such strategically and politically contentious issues. But several features of the U.S. political landscape may ease some barriers to further progress in the year ahead.
―The president is a lame duck. But since neither he nor the vice president will be running for office, and virtually all GOP candidates are putting plenty of distance between themselves and the White House, they may choose to devote themselves more single-mindedly to burnishing their historic legacy.
―Within the executive branch, moreover, most of the ardent critics of negotiations with North Korea are gone.
―To be sure, the Democrats control Congress, and they are not eager to do the president any favors. Yet there is broad bipartisan support for efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
―The primary schedule has been accelerated, and the major party nominees could be chosen by early February. Yet in the general election campaigns, centrist swing voters weigh more heavily in the balance and they tend to be more moderate on foreign and domestic issues than many party loyalists.
Much will depend, of course, on how North Korea chooses to play its hand. Will the North attempt to move steadily ahead on the negotiating front, or play a waiting game hoping to get a more generous deal from President Bush’s successor?
Then there are South Korea’s elections. Whoever wins in December will surely favor engagement with the North.
The question, however, is how tough-minded the next president will be in pressing for a more reciprocal engagement pattern. If he does, coordinated diplomacy among North Korea’s neighbors and the United States will be more readily managed, whoever wins our own presidential sweepstake.

*The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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