When it comes to diplomatic progress with North Korea, often one's tendency is to wait for the other shoe to drop. This time, though, there's cause for optimism. North Korea is handing over to China a declaration of its nuclear programs, a diplomatic feat achieved through negotiations involving the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan and China. The goal is for North Korea to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs.
Although U.S. diplomats have in recent years been successful in engaging North Korea bilaterally, China has a unique bargaining position with North Korea. Quite literally, North Korea cannot get through the day without China in terms of trade and food supplies. It also is a neighbor with tremendous military might.
This is not to denigrate other diplomatic successes. In February, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang, the highest-level cultural exchange between the United States and North Korea since the end of the Korean War.
In February 2007, the United States took steps to free $25 million of North Korea's money, which was frozen in Banco Delta Asia in in Macaque. North Korea then agreed to six-party talks. Later in the year, North Korea began to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon.
These are remarkable accomplishments considering that in February 2005, North Korea announced it had nuclear weapons. The following year, it conducted an underground nuclear test.
In exchange for North Korea handing over this information and agreeing to verification processes, President Bush has notified Congress of his intentions to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Otherwise, North Korea will receive no significant economic assistance, no trade or investment cooperations, no security guarantees and, perhaps most important, no normalized relations.
In fact, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Kyoto, Japan, that the nuclear declaration submitted on Thursday was a good first step in getting North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons, but that process must be completed before Washington considers moving beyond a preliminary easing of some sanctions. On Friday, North Korea destroyed its nuclear reactor cooling tower, a move that was a step forward. However, American officials cautioned not to overstate the importance of the event because a cooling tower would be easy to rebuild and it is not the most technically significant component of the nuclear reactor.
In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Rice expressed cautious optimism, considering North Korea's track record. Verification is essential, Rice wrote. "We will hold North Korea accountable. We will reimpose any applicable sanctions that we have waived plus add new ones. And because North Korea would be violating an agreement not only with us, but with all of its neighbors, those countries will take appropriate measures as well."
In other words, this agreement could have only been struck and enforced through the six-party process. The aim, of course, is to make the "neighborhood" safer. Considering North Korea's cozy relationship with Syria, learning more about North Korea's closed regime should also help make the world safer, too.