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Despite promise to shut reactor, N. Korea nuclear program is alive

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -- The Bush administration's "good cop" strategy toward North Korea appears to have paid off for now, with the Communist regime promising to meet with U.N. weapons inspectors today as a first step toward decommissioning its nuclear reactor.

Still, nearly everyone who has closely followed the protracted effort says it's far too early to assume the U.S. and other nations will succeed in peacefully persuading North Korea to give up its membership in the nuclear club. And some say the United States might yet regret having set aside its "bad cop" strategy of refusing to provide any incentives to North Korea until the denuclearization process began.

"It's hard to say if this is vindicating Bush's policies," said Zhang Liangui, a Korean expert at China's Central Party School in Beijing. "This is like gambling. The U.S. had a tough attitude earlier, but it's hard to say which one is working more effectively, the tough one or the soft one.

"If North Korea doesn't want to give up its nuclear weapons at all and is purely prolonging the process," he said, "the United States is only buying time."

North Korea announced yesterday that it considered a banking conflict with the United States closed, with about $25 million in disputed funds "finally" transferred according to its demands.

Early last year, banking regulators in Macao froze the money, in North Korean accounts in the Banco Delta Asia, after the United States accused the bank of helping Pyongyang launder money and distribute counterfeit U.S. currency.

The Bush administration recently agreed to release the money if North Korea would live up to its end of a February agreement on denuclearization.

The money has since been transferred to a bank in the far east of Russia, Dalkombank, which said yesterday that it has finished transmitting it to the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea. With that issue out of the way, officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency left for the North Korean capital to begin talks about how to monitor the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, where fuel for nuclear weapons has been produced. North Korea expelled the U.N. inspectors in 2002.

"Now we are going to go to negotiate the details: How to verify and make sure the reactors will be shut down at Yongbyon," Olli Heinonen, the agency's deputy director, told reporters during a stopover yesterday at Beijing's International Airport.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. assistant secretary of state who is the Bush administration's envoy to the talks with North Korea, said after a weekend trip to Pyongyang that he expected the reactor to be shut down "probably within three weeks."

But as Hill has acknowledged, the shutdown is just "a small step" toward denuclearization. There will almost certainly be difficult days ahead for the United States and the four other powers negotiating with North Korea - China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

In September 2005, North Korea agreed to abandon its nascent nuclear weapons program and give up its dream of becoming a nuclear power. But in October 2006, it tested a low-grade nuclear device, thereby raising the stakes, and the urgency, of the six-nation talks.

By February, it had agreed to once again head down the road toward denuclearization, with the decommissioning of the Yongbyon reactor. Once that is done, the six parties are to move on to tougher issues of North Korea's actual nuclear weapons program. It is believed to have enough plutonium to build six to 10 nuclear weapons.

Zhang, the Chinese analyst, whose government is North Korea's closest ally, said the regime of President Kim Jong Il might be emboldened by its success in retrieving its bank funds, despite having "totally broken the rules" that it agreed to in the February agreement.

Now, said Zhang, "They know that even when they don't follow the timetable, other countries will still wait. They know they can procrastinate as they wish."

Mitchell Landsberg writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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