North Korea's long-awaited declaration detailing its nuclear activities, which it handed over last week in response to six-party disarmament talks with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the U.S., was thin gruel compared with what the Bush administration originally wanted. But it was better than nothing, which is what the administration probably would have gotten had it held to its previous policy of not talking.
The North had agreed to a full accounting of its nuclear activities in return for food and energy assistance. Instead, the documents it turned over were maddeningly incomplete. They made no mention of Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program or its secret nuclear aid to Libya and Syria. Nor did they describe weapons North Korea has built.
Yet the Bush administration announced it was lifting some trade sanctions and removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism over the next 45 days. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed the declaration as a step toward getting Pyongyang out of the plutonium business. Having derided diplomacy for six years in favor of bellicose threats, that sounded like an administration desperate to leave some legacy of diplomatic success.
Presumably, the North Korean talks could be a model for dealing with Iran, which officials suspect is pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Yet North Korea's secret uranium program, like Iran's, could still produce a bomb, one that might not even need to be tested before it was used.
The dramatic images of North Korea blowing up a cooling tower at its Yongbyon reactor were great TV. But in terms of the administration's nonproliferation goals, Pyongyang's nuclear genie is already out of the bottle. This deeply flawed process may have offered a straw of hope, but it likely will also leave a cloud of uncertainty over the North's nuclear intentions for years to come.