Having removed North Korea from its list of terrorist nations in order to coax it back into compliance with a previous agreement to scrap its nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and energy assistance, the U.S. still has no idea whether the reclusive communist state really intends to fulfill its commitment to disarm.
The loopholes in the deal U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill managed to salvage in Pyongyang last week are big enough to drive several atom bombs through. But that may be the best the Bush administration could hope for in its waning days. The North seems intent on shrouding its nuclear intentions in ambiguity despite promises to let international inspectors verify the dismantling of its weapons program, and despite the linguistic adjustment that got it off the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring nations, it remains a rogue state that sold nuclear technology and missiles to Syria and Libya, murdered diplomats, abducted Japanese and South Korean civilians and stood by as millions of its citizens died of starvation.
That no one really knows the extent of the North's nuclear arsenal is partly the Bush administration's fault. A year into office, after the North admitted running a secret uranium enrichment program, it repudiated an agreement brokered during the Clinton presidency that would have required Pyongyang to stop producing plutonium. By the time talks resumed in late 2006, the North had produced enough plutonium for half a dozen bombs and tested a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Hill's efforts to get the talks back on track have at least temporarily put the brakes on Pyongyang's headlong rush to enlarge its arsenal and test more weapons. That could give the next president some breathing room to figure out a longer-term diplomatic strategy. But given the mercurial nature of the North Korean regime, the slow, frustrating negotiating dance of two steps back for every step forward may be about the best that the next occupant of the White House can hope for, too.