...Well, not good per se, but definitely better than it was a few months ago. The world was in shock after North Korea tested its first ever nuclear weapon — though the specific details are skewed (i.e. everyone says a different thing about how the tests went, if there were any). At any rate, things did not look good. Somewhere along the road America stuck its tail between its legs and started working more closely with the international community, and China in particular, to try to defuse the North Korean nuke situation. The Bush administrations nearly militant, cowboy diplomacy was not appropriate in this situation (or most others, for that matter...). US envoy Christopher Hill did a good job; it appears that diplomacy and cooperation — not as much unilateral war — works after all.
The North Koreans, impoverished and poor, have long been in isolation. China is the only they can turn too, but China worries that a collapse of the authoritarian state would spark a mass exodus into China, thus hurting its infrastructure and economy. After the nuke tests, a defiant as ever North Korea lost much of the foreign aid that keeps it from imploding. As negotiations inched forward the N Koreans steadily brought in the benefits as the international community conceded that to secure and eventually shut down the nuclear program they would need to give benefits — whether fuel or food — to the Stalinist pariah state, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, quite possibly the most factually-incorrect name of any nation-state on the planet.
The worry was not that N Korea would use the nuclear weapons, but that it would sell the resources and technologies to, say, Al Qaeda. Because of the semi-developed state of the nuclear program, North Korea has always been a bigger threat than the showy Iran, which has more ties to the outside world, not to mention resources. A February deal was the result of these negotiations.
So, you might be asking yourself, why all this background information? Well, because another major development in the nuclear diplomacy between North Korea and others is upon us. Just recently the process appeared to be stalled following some wrangling between the United States and N Korea over a frozen bank account in Macau. After that was cleared up the next step was for North Korea to begin shutting down its nuclear reactor(s). Now...
UN inspectors have begun verifying that North Korea has really closed down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the top US nuclear envoy has said.
Christopher Hill's comments come a day after Pyongyang told Washington it had shut the reactor.
North Korea's announcement was welcomed by both the US and South Korea.
North Korea agreed to close the reactor in February in return for economic aid. Under the deal, Pyongyang got its first heavy fuel oil shipments on Saturday.
The nuclear team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in North Korea on Saturday to start the Yongbyon inspection.
If confirmed, the shut-down would be the first stage in disabling the North's nuclear programme.
N KOREA NUCLEAR DEAL
N Korea to "shut down and seal" Yongbyon reactor, then disable all nuclear facilities
In return, will be given 1m tons of heavy fuel oil
N Korea to invite IAEA back to monitor deal
Under earlier 2005 deal, N Korea agreed to end nuclear programme and return to non-proliferation treaty
N Korea's demand for light water reactor to be discussed at "appropriate time"
Mr Hill has emphasised that the closure of the Yongbyon reactor is only the first step in decommissioning North Korea's nuclear programme.
He has said he expects a full list of the country's nuclear facilities within months - as agreed in the February deal.
The participating countries - South and North Korea, Russia, Japan, the US - are expected to negotiate the details of the next phase of the North's decommissioning process, namely the declaration of its nuclear programme and disabling the facilities.
North Korea isn't expected to really "up the ante", as one Columbia University expert said (qtd. from an interview on the BBC World Service), but it may look like it wants more because the February diplomatic deal with the N Koreans was "incomplete". It was hard to get all parties to agree on some essential requirements, so the deal ended up having holes in it. (Nonetheless it's better to have it than not.) As it stands the North Koreans really aren't getting much from the West in this deal. However they are complying and working towards shutting down their nuclear devises, as per the deal. We need to look beyond just shutting down the nuclear facilities, said the expert, focusing in the larger picture of totally disabling them so the nuclear program cannot be restarted with a flick of a switch — especially considering the inevitable instability in Kim Jong-il's nation. Just like in the case of Pakistan and Iran, extremists and terrorists cannot get their hands on this nuclear material, but state instability makes it all the more dangerous that they could. Unlike even the most renegade state, terrorists won't hesitate to use nuclear weapons.
By any means the supposed shutting down of the Yongbyon reactor is a triumph for diplomacy and a testing example for future cases of nuclear diplomacy, like the one that may develop more seriously with Iran. Any kind of precedent his helpful; hopefully it won't be needed. Hint to world leaders: this is as good a time as ever to talk about nuclear nonproliferation and push it on a global scale, stop being so hypocritical on the issue — yes I'm talking to you, major powers —, and emphasize that often slow and steady, i.e. diplomacy, often wins the race.
On a totally different note, In Perspective won the "Super Saturday" Blog of the Day award.