June 27, 2008 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security, Asia

Korean nukes: Don't get giddy

North Korea gave the world some good news this week - finally handing over a declaration about its nuclear program and promising to blow up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. But don't break out the best bubbly just yet.

These moves are only a first step in what is likely to be a drawn-out, slippery, pot-hole-filled road in a (possibly futile) attempt to roll back Kim Jong Il's membership in the nuclear-weapons club.

Yes, the White House got a bit light-headed over the Korean news: It's already started the process of lifting economic sanctions on the reclusive nation as a reward for good behavior. (That process could get controversial, especially in Congress: Do Kim & Co. really deserve to come off the Terrorism List, or to escape punishment under the Trading With the Enemy Act?)

And it was good news, if measured: Tumbling the cooling tower puts the Yongbyon plant out of commission - and it would take a year to rebuild. Making the nuclear declaration this week is a welcome step, too.

But a welcome initial step. Pyongyang is six months late in handing over what's supposed to be a complete and correct accounting of its nuclear programs - and you can bet we're not going to get anything close to the Full Monty.

  • It won't have anything about the regime's clandestine uranium-based nuclear-weapons program.

Washington insists Pyongyang has such a program, which parallels the plutonium program at Yongbyon. But the North Koreans have been evasive - at best - about its existence.

  • The declaration also won't have any info on the regime's nuclear-proliferation activities, such as its work with Damascus on a nuclear reactor at al Kibar in northern Syria (the one targeted in last September's Israeli air raid).

Proliferation-watchers also have a sinking sense that North Korea may be involved with Iran. After all, the two have robust ties on ballistic missiles - Iran's Shahab missile is based on North Korea's No Dong.

  • Finally, it won't have the scoop on the size of the North Korean nuclear-weapons arsenal.

Pyongyang sees its nukes as a critical ace-in-the-hole against American pressure or aggression. But getting a handle on the arsenal's size is key, if (and that's a big if) we're ever going to make progress on pulling Pyongyang's nuclear fangs.

Other challenges are ahead, too. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation just a week ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted the United States would demand tough verification of Kim's declaration, including access to nuclear facilities and other data.

That's the right approach - verification is a critical element of any current or future agreement. But good luck getting anywhere on that one.

The idea of a gaggle of US inspectors freely running around the ultra-secretive North Korean police state poking their noses into labs and the like boggles the mind.

In fact, recent North Korean whispers suggest Pyongyang will reject out of hand any verification regime that would the pass the laugh test.

Rejecting verification outright would call into question Kim's willingness to disarm in the long run - after all, the regime has a solid record of breaking its word on nukes, most notably the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. Overall, a solid verification regime is probably the proverbial "long pole in the tent" - the toughest test in getting from this week's first steps to the final goal of disarmament.

In the end, all US moves must support a verifiable process that ultimately uncovers all of Pyongyang's programs, neuters its nukes and puts an end to its problematic proliferation.

Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post