Promising Steps with Pyongyang
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
American conservatives, such as former UN ambassador John Bolton, have already attacked last month's six-party agreement on North Korea's nuclear programme. Even so, the signs are good that the parties involved are implementing the deal in good faith.
That wasn't the case in September 2005, when an agreement in principle to settle the issue was accepted by the six parties - China, the United States, North Korea, Japan, South Korea and Russia. That deal disintegrated within days as Washington and Pyongyang publicly announced their very different understandings of what it meant.
This time round, the parties appear to be moving ahead to implement the first-stage goals. North Korea has invited Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to visit Pyongyang to discuss the return of agency inspectors, who will monitor the shutting down of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
The US has invited the main North Korean negotiator, Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, to Washington to discuss the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Their first task will be to set up a working group to map out future meetings. The mere fact that the two countries will be talking to each other directly - something the Bush administration had previously opposed - reflects the progress that has been made. Indeed, the February 13 accord was possible only because of a sea change in Washington.
The Republican defeat in November's mid-term elections weakened the neoconservatives, who had previously dominated decision-making. And with President George W. Bush bogged down in Iraq and facing new challenges in Iran, Washington is eager for a diplomatic triumph, even a small one, with North Korea.
Some administration officials on the conservative right, such as Mr Bolton and Robert Joseph, undersecretary for arms control and international security, have resigned.
With Mr Bush personally endorsing the agreement and publicly repudiating Mr Bolton's criticism, it is now difficult for neocons to come out in opposition. Even Vice-President Dick Cheney, while expressing doubt over whether North Korea would live up to the deal, said that the latest deal "represents the first hopeful step towards a better future for the North Korean people".
The American change of heart led to an unprecedented bilateral meeting between Mr Kim and his American counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, in Berlin. The two men talked for three days, thrashing out the main outline of the agreement unveiled in Beijing last month.
Pyongyang had previously refused to negotiate until the US lifted its freeze on North Korea's accounts in Macau's Banco Delta Asia. The US promised that the issue would be resolved within 30 days.
North Korea realised that, although it had achieved nuclear power status by detonating a nuclear device in October, it was not accepted into the international community. On the contrary, it was condemned even by its closest friends, China and Russia.
Pyongyang sees its nuclear deterrent as its most valuable possession. It will bargain hard in the coming weeks and months to ensure that it exacts the highest possible price for parting with it, bit by bit. But the North Koreans clearly recognise that they need to change and become part of the international community - if they hope to raise the standard of living of their people and move the country into the 21st century.
That is why the biggest carrots in the initial agreement were the setting up of working groups to pave the way towards the eventual normalisation of North Korea's relations with Washington and Tokyo, the world's two biggest economies.
True, the agreement doesn't provide for the full denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. But it does provide a road map leading to denuclearisation, with the parties negotiating each step of the way. A satisfactory agreement is by no means at hand, but the path to it is now clear.
(Originally appeared in the February 28, 2007 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)