Commentary Magazine


Don’t Worry, North Korea Really Means Well

Today’s Washington Post carries good news about the Hermit Kingdom. David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, and Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department official, tell us there’s no reason for us to worry about the lack of North Korean progress in meeting its obligations under the various agreements it has signed. Indeed, the “finger-wagging, told-you-so naysayers in and out of the Bush administration should take a deep breath.”

To begin with, they argue, North Korea’s full declaration detailing the scope of its nuclear program, due on December 31, and now 24 days late, is not really late at all: “After some tail-chasing, it emerged that North Korea had quietly shared an initial declaration with the United States in November.” The North Koreans there admitted came clean about their plutonium stockpile but they denied having “a uranium enrichment program.”

Albright and Shire acknowledge the “ample evidence that North Korea acquired components for a centrifuge-enrichment program” but they explain that few observers now believe that it actually managed to enrich any uranium. In any case, their efforts in this area are nothing to worry about: “The success or failure of this latest agreement with North Korea must not hinge on the uranium issue,” even if the full declaration was not really full at all.

Then there is North Korean cooperation with a covert Syrian nuclear program. This is “troubling,” Albright and Shire tell us, but “must also be kept in context.” What is the context? The necessity of keeping North Korea engaged in dialogue. In the face of Pyongyong’s provision of “sensitive or dual-use equipment to Syria,” the main imperative is “keeping the deal together.” This will help bring “North Korea into the fold, bit by bit, making it harder for it to slip back into the arena of illicit deals and keeping a bright light on its activities.”

As for the nuclear facility in Syria that Israel bombed in September after a North Korean shipment of some unknown sort arrived there, this also must be kept in context, and in any case “it is gone now and whatever has replaced it is almost certainly not a reactor.” Reports that North Korea provided plutonium to Syria “are baseless.” The evidence: “The transfer of such material for weapons would be a casus belli with dire consequences for both countries, and this surely is understood by both Kim Jong Il and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

Albright and Shire complain that the advocates of the “the six-party process” have been “unfairly maligned.” Perhaps. But perhaps they are maligning themselves. In their op-ed, these advocates of the six-party process are adducing evidence that is not really evidence to explain away every North Korean transgression, large and small. Where they have no evidence, not even the tissue-paper-thin kind, they adapt a slightly different approach: they simply tell us to close our eyes to the North Korean violations in order to keep “a laser-like focus” on the talks.

Connecting the Dots has asked readers the same question before: What is the best word to describe such an approach to the North Korean nuclear problem?