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Irrational Exuberance on NK

The shutdown of North Korea’s only working reactor and associated facilities on Saturday has reinvigorated multilateral negotiations in Beijing. Chun Yung-woo, Seoul’s chief delegate to the six-party talks, called the atmosphere at the nuclear disarmament discussions “as bright as Beijing’s skies.” The South Korean intended to convey optimism. But his figure of speech suggests the opposite—the skies above the Chinese capital being mostly gray with pollution—and is all the more apt for it.

How do we account for the sudden progress of the last several days? There have been many moments of rapid advance since the end of the 1980’s, when the world began to take notice of the North Korean nuclear program. The international community rejoiced when Jimmy Carter, defying Seoul and Washington, visited Pyongyang in 1994 and set the terms for the Agreed Framework. Yet during the ensuing years, the ruling Kim family—first Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il—managed consistently to throw the process into reverse at critical moments. Particularly, Kim Jong Il has stalled the six-party talks since 2003, when they convened. It is now especially unlikely that he, a master at creating crisis on cue, has made a good-faith commitment to disarm. His health is in doubt and the military—the most powerful faction in Pyongyang—is dead-set against surrendering its most destructive weapons.

This appearance of progress, however, has everything to do with South Korea’s next presidential election, to be held in December. North Korea’s propaganda machine is already working overtime to elect a “progressive” in the mold of Roh Moo-hyun, the current NK-friendly leader in Seoul. Unfortunately for Kim, the conservative Grand National Party—which maintains a policy more in line with Washington’s—already holds a commanding lead in the polls. But the GNP’s advantage will vanish overnight if Kim and Roh can stage some good news—like, say, an agreement on denuclearization. So look for more stunning headlines in the days and weeks ahead. But I’d bet my bottom dollar—or my last won, as the case may be—that when the December elections are over, Kim Jong Il will find some pretext to fail to turn over his weapons, plutonium, and uranium.



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