Tuesday's deal between North Korea and five other nations, including the United States, to take the first concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament in exchange for aid and normalised relations marks a long-awaited diplomatic breakthrough for U.S. President George W. Bush and a clear victory for "realists" in his administration.
The deal, which was announced after several days of talks in Beijing, was immediately denounced as a defeat by one of the administration's former leading hawks, ret. U.N. Amb. John Bolton, who is considered close to Vice President Dick Cheney.
"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world," Bolton charged in a CNN interview. "It contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy he's been following for the past six years, and, second, it makes the administration look very weak at a time in Iraq ...when it needs to look strong."
But a statement issued by the White House removed any doubt that President George W. Bush stood behind the accord.
"I am pleased with the agreements reached today at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing," the statement, which was issued in Bush's name, declared. "These talks represent the best opportunity to use diplomacy to address North Korea's nuclear programmes."
Whether the deal, which lays out steps to be taken by all six parties -- Russia, Japan, South Korea, as well as China, the U.S. and North Korea -- to be taken over the next 60 days, will act as a precedent for possible direct negotiations with Iran, the other surviving member of Bush's "axis of evil", over its nuclear programme remains to be seen.
But there is little doubt, that, if all goes smoothly during that period, the hand of administration realists, centred in the State Department, will be strengthened vis-à-vis the hawks. They remain largely concentrated in Cheney's office and in the National Security Council staff and have long opposed direct bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang of the kind that apparently made Tuesday's accord possible.
Indeed, as recently as last spring, they had prevailed on Bush to prevent his top negotiator on Korea, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Christopher Hill, from conducting one-on-one talks with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, "outside of the Six-Party Talks".
But some eight months, several North Korean ballistic missile firings on U.S. Independence Day, and one North Korean nuclear test later, Bush agreed to appeals by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the two men meet in Berlin in January to hash out the basic elements of the deal announced Tuesday.
"I think they could have gotten this agreement a long time ago, and I think there was a good possibility that it would have headed off the North's acquisition and test of fissionable material," said Don Oberdorfer, a Korea specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here. "It's only now that the administration is willing to deal with them in serious ways."
Tuesday's deal will require Pyongyang to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility, readmit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify compliance, and prepare a "complete" accounting of all its other nuclear facilities and programmes within the 60 days.
Within 30 days, the U.S. Treasury will review and partially lift financial sanctions imposed in late 2005 to punish Pyongyang for alleged counterfeiting and other illicit activities, while Washington will also help finance an initial shipment of 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO) to the North. The U.S. will also begin the process by which North Korea can be removed from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In addition, the parties will create five working groups to work out outstanding issues with Pyongyang, including its total denuclearisation, how aid will be tied to progress in denuclearisation, normalisation of diplomatic relations with Japan and the U.S., and a peace agreement that would put a formal end to the Korean War and establish a new regional security mechanism.
Given sufficient compliance over the 60 days, the foreign ministers of all six parties will meet to assess progress and launch a second phase of the process that would include the continued supply of HFO to North Korea in exchange for the disabling of all of Pyongyang's nuclear facilities.
In a briefing with the press here after the announcement, Rice stressed that the accord marked only a beginning in what many analysts believe will be a long and tortuous process with no guarantee of ultimate success. "This is still the first quarter," she told reporters. "There is still a lot of time to go on the clock, but the six parties have now taken a promising step in the right direction."
Analysts from both the right -- like Bolton -- and the left pointed out that the core of the agreement was very similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework worked out between the administration of President Bill Clinton and Pyongyang. That deal called for the provision of HFO and other energy assistance, including two light-water nuclear reactors provided by Japan and South Korea, in exchange for a permanent freeze on the North's plutonium programme at Yongbyon.
In 2002, however, the Bush administration, based in part on investigations of the network of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, accused North Korea of violating that accord by secretly working on another programme to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons. Washington cut off supplies of HFO, and in response, Pyongyang threw out the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
North Korea has steadfastly denied it ever had an HEU programme, and many analysts believe the conflict could pose a major obstacle to progress on Tuesday's agreement.
Other potential problems loom equally large. While North Korea has committed itself to complete denuclearisation under another Six-Party agreement reached Sep. 19, 2005, the latest accord provides no specific details about the disposition of the plutonium produced so far by Yongbyon -- enough, according to the U.S. intelligence community to produce up to eight or even more bombs. It is also silent about North Korea's advanced missile-development programme.
Those uncertainties will likely make the accord vulnerable to attack, particularly from hawks who have long warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il cannot be trusted and has no intention of giving up his arsenal because, in their view, his regime's survival depends on it.
Democrats, who have long supported the kinds of bilateral talks that led to Tuesday's agreement, may also be tempted to score political points against the administration by pointing out that Tuesday's agreement could have been reached back in 2003, before North Korea had actually exploded a nuclear device.
"It's important that the Democrats in particular hold their fire and not take this as an opportunity to say, 'Hey, we told you so,' said John Feffer, a Korea specialist who runs the website, Foreign Policy in Focus. "There's still a faction within the administration that no doubt wants to derail this, and Democratic gloating will only strengthen it."
Rice and Hill argued that Tuesday's agreement was an improvement over the 1994 Framework and would have been difficult to reach before now. They stressed in particular the regional context in which the accord was negotiated, especially China's leadership role in obtaining it and strong vested interest in assuring compliance.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service