Outside editorial: U.S. holds breath over N. Korea

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2007

The architects of North Korea's putative nuclear disarmament are holding their breath this week. There's a lot riding on the events of the next few days or weeks - including the success or failure of a new diplomatic approach by Washington to the baffling regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

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Under the terms of a disarmament accord reached in February by the United States, North Korea and four other nations, Pyongyang is supposed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant in exchange for economic and political assistance, including 50,000 tons of oil. The deal was in limbo for months as Kim's regime fussed over $25 million frozen in a Macao bank, but after U.S. officials arranged to have the money released, Pyongyang suggested that it would close the plant as soon as it received a tenth of the oil. Today, South Korea will ship 6,200 tons north.

After years of broken promises and overheated rhetoric from Kim, nobody in Washington is naive enough to take him at his word. Yet Kim's adherence to some of the preliminary procedural niceties seems to have generated unusual giddiness at the State Department. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials have even begun studying ways to formally end the Korean War, settled in 1953 with an armistice.

A bit of wishful thinking is understandable, given the shift in Washington's diplomatic culture. The neoconservatives who favored tougher sanctions and opposed any concessions to Kim's regime have been either purged or silenced by the Bush administration. The new bunch is eager to prove that diplomacy can work.

We'd like to believe they're right. Kim's decision on whether to close Yongbyon will be the first test, but far from the only one. Anything beats standing still or moving backward, which is all the neocons ever managed to do.

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