N. Korea shifts toward engagement with world

Kim Jong Il agreed to disable 'all' nuclear facilities by Dec. 31 and met South's President Roh this week.

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An agreement reached this week with North Korea for it to dismantle "all" of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year further cements Pyongyang's commitment to a path of denuclearization – but is not the end of the story.

Expect more advances and setbacks in the months ahead as the North is pressed for a full disclosure of its nuclear inventory – including its nuclear weapons arsenal and a suspected uranium enrichment operation, experts say.

It is still early to say if the week's events indicate that the North, which has been duplicitous about international agreements in the past, is serious this time. Self-preservation remains the paramount concern of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The question now is whether the agreement reached between the United States and the North on Wednesday, as well as the reconciliation summit of the leaders of North and South Korea, mean that the secretive and impoverished regime has truly chosen a path of opening and closer engagement with the world.

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Given that just a year ago, the North conducted a nuclear explosion that set off global alarm, this week's agreement – committing Pyongyang to nuclear dismantlement by the end of the year in exchange for tons of fuel oil and other economic aid – is a notable achievement, some experts say.

"This is good news, period, but it is not the end of the road to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. "When you think that a year ago North Korea conducted a nuclear explosion, this is a 180-degree turnaround.

"But only time will tell," he adds, "if this is the real deal in terms of denuclearizing the North."

In addition to unanswered questions about the North's nuclear arsenal and any uranium enrichment program, experts say Pyongyang's quest for removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism could cause problems.

Wednesday's agreement, reached in Beijing, is the second major step in the six-party talks that resulted in a framework agreement in February. Under that agreement, the accord signed this week was to have been reached sooner – but a bitter battle over North Korean funds held in a Macau bank held things up.

For some observers, the evolution for the North Korean regime since last year is matched by an equally noteworthy turnaround for the Bush administration. The Wednesday agreement – involving substantial US financial commitment – follows the outlines of a deal the Clinton administration struck with Pyongyang, and one President Bush dismissed as the wrong path as recently as the 2004 presidential campaign .

But Bush is now so enthused about the North Korea deal – despite its detractors among conservative analysts – that he held it out as a potential model for reaching an accord with Iran.

"If it means we are ready to sit down at the table with Tehran and seriously talk about our interests and resolving a crisis, then fine," says Mr. Kimball. "But if the president means we should follow the North Korea precedent and wait until Iran sets off a nuclear explosion before we get serious about diplomacy, then it's an unfortunate statement."

In South Korea, analysts find hope in the inclusion of the nuclear issue in the two presidents' summit statement.

One day after North Korea agreed to disable critical facilities at its main nuclear complex by year-end, Kim and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun stated that "With regard to the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, the South and the North have agreed to work together to implement smoothly" the agreements reached at six-party talks.

"To put in the nuclear issue represents a concession," says Han Sung Joo, the South's foreign minister at the time of the 1994 nuclear agreement with the North, even though "everyone thinks it's going to be very difficult" to get North Korea to make good on its promises.

The reference to the nuclear agreement appears in the same paragraph in which the two profess "the need to end the current armistice regime" – a reference to the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953 – and "build a permanent peace regime" – a reference to a peace treaty long sought by North Korea.

In an unscripted exchange between Bush and Mr. Roh at last month's gathering in Sydney, Australia, of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Roh pressed Bush to endorse the idea of a treaty. Bush responded by saying US support for a treaty would come after North Korea had verifiably abandoned its nuclear program.

While North Korea moved closer to that goal this week, talks on a treaty could be lengthy and controversial. They are not likely to begin until the US has taken the North off its terrorist list.

"Two problems have to be solved," says Paik Ha Soon of the Sejong Institute, a think tank with close government ties. "The first is taking North Korea off the list of sponsors of terrorism."

The second, he says, "has to do with concrete measures to make North Korea fully declare the nuclear program it has."

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