In the summer of 2003, when the talks were first planned, Pyongyang merely insisted on its right to hold what it coyly called a "war deterrent." Five rounds of dialogue later, there has been real progressnot in the negotiations, but in North Korea's nuclear program. After defiantly admitting that the nation already possessed nukes and later stating it would not get rid of them "under any circumstances," the North last October shocked the world with its first nuclear test. You might think that the diplomatic sophisticates in charge of the negotiations would have detected a discouraging pattern by now. Apparently not. Recent reports suggesting that Pyongyang may be preparing for a second test have only increased urgent calls for the North to return to the bargaining table, possibly as soon as early February.
Perhaps most astonishing of all, even Washington is now straining for another chance to coax Pyongyang into voluntary nuclear self-disarmament. Over the past year, the Bush Administration, once the only actor in the cast committed to pressing North Korea into nonproliferation compliance, has performed a dizzying climb-down. Gone are U.S. demands for the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North's nuclear programs. American diplomats no longer even talk of North Korea's highly enriched-uranium program, whose public exposure by State Department officials in 2002 triggered the ongoing proliferation drama. Since North Korean officials now insist they've never had such a program, it would be undiplomatic to suggest otherwise.
Instead, the U.S. was reduced last month to promising North Korea an "early harvest" in return for good behavior. This concept called for the U.S. to pledge economic aid (food, oil) and other benefits (including, perhaps, diplomatic recognition) in return for a provisional North Korean freeze of its plutonium facilities and a readmission of nuclear inspectors. In other words, the Bush Administration was proffering a zero-penalty return to the previous nuclear deals Pyongyang had flagrantly brokenbut with additional goodies, and a provisional free pass for any nukes produced since 2002. With this overture, the Bush team embraced the very approach it had once mocked as weak-kneed and "Clintonesque."
Pyongyang knows a cave-in when it sees one. They brushed aside the "early harvest" proposal as inadequate, demanding still more before they would listen to new denuclearization offersspecifically, the release of $24 million of Pyongyang's funds currently frozen in Macau's Banco Delta Asia on suspicion of North Korean complicity in counterfeiting U.S. currency. Pyongyang's obsession over the past year with repocketing its Macau bag moneya paramount issue on its foreign agenda ever since the accounts were impounded in 2005 by Macau banking authorities under U.S. Treasury scrutinyis easily explained. Since the North is in many respects a state-run criminal enterprise (reportedly replete with drug-running operations, and scams to counterfeit everything from U.S. dollars to Marlboro cigarettes to Viagra), this may be seen as pure goodfella fury at being stung by the very victims its own shakedown racket was supposed to be bilking. Or it may be that since the Macau seizures are practically the only penalties Pyongyang has suffered (thus far the U.N. sanctions enacted after last fall's test are mere pinpricks), it wanted to make sure it had an absolutely risk-free economic playing field before kicking its nuclear game into overdrive.
What matters is that when North Korea pressed, U.S. negotiators squirmed. Now there is an unseemly tug-of-war in Washington, with State Department officials wheedling Treasury counterparts to let up, just a bit, on their international campaign against counterfeiting and money laundering, so that a charter member of the Axis of Evil can be lured back to the six-party table. The outcome is still uncertain. If Pyongyang does get its frozen millions back, and the past is prologue, Kim will pocket the money, then detonate another nuke at the time and place of his choosing. He understands that the six-party farce provides ideal diplomatic cover for his unobstructed nuclear buildup. What the other players don't seem to understandor in the case of an increasingly weakened Bush presidency, may fear to faceis that the only genuine solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is to push for a better class of dictator in Pyongyang.