No nation has been more troublesome and devious in negotiations for the past four decades than North Korea. It is against this background that we must evaluate the most recent agreement over the dismantling of its potential to make nuclear weapons. The agreement -- it's not quite a formal treaty -- is another small step forward. If it is implemented as expected, it will reduce considerably the threat of nuclear proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea's hyper-jingoistic leadership would be a frightening prospect. Supplying two small nuclear reactors at a cost to Japan, South Korea and the United States of some $4.5 billion is a small price to pay to avert it.
Pyongyang has balked at agreements it has made before, including an earlier version of this one. This time it has emerged with a little added window dressing but no change in the fundamental points agreed on last October. Though everyone then at the table understood that the two light water reactors would be manufactured by South Korea, which will bear most of the cost, the North Koreans tried to wiggle out of that part of the deal. The U.S. negotiators stood their ground, however, at another round of negotiations just concluded. The result is that the new reactors will be made in South Korea but the North Koreans don't have to admit it publicly.
Considering what is to be gained, that is not a significant concession, though it ruffled some political feathers in South Korea. Pyongyang has stopped operation of one reactor and is halting construction on two others, plus a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, which together could have produced enough plutonium for 30 nuclear weapons a year. It also agrees )) to store under international inspection some spent fuel rods that could have provided material for several weapons and eventually to ship it elsewhere. North Korea gets enough fuel oil to make up for the loss in nuclear power generation until the donated reactors are on line.
North Korea has welshed before and may well do so again. The worrisome aspect of this deal is that much of what Pyongyang must do is years off. But so are some of the gifts it is receiving in exchange. North Korea's leaders would not have grudgingly accepted the dismantling of their nuclear capability unless they thought they had something to gain by it. As long as the U.S., together with Japan and South Korea, can keep the reclusive regime focused on the benefits of cooperation, there is ground for hope.