THERE MAY STILL be sniping from hard-liners such as John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, but the process of negotiating North Korea's denuclearization is gathering unmistakable momentum. This is one of the few bright spots in the struggle against nuclear proliferation. It represents a welcome turnaround by President Bush and merits bipartisan support at home and cooperation from America's allies in Asia.
Bilateral talks this past weekend in Geneva between Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the lead US negotiator, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye Gwan, produced agreement on reciprocal steps to fulfill the terms of a breakthrough deal last February. The key trade-off requires that the North permit the disabling of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, its nuclear fuel fabrication facility, and its facility for reprocessing plutonium. In return, the United States will remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The North is also pledging to provide a full accounting of everything in its nuclear program. The United States, in turn, is preparing to end sanctions on the North and to pursue talks on eventual normalization of relations between the two countries.
In Geneva, each envoy emphasized in his public statements what his side had obtained from the agreements. Hill spoke of the North's obligation to disable and fully account for its nuclear program. Kim said the United States had agreed to take North Korea off the terrorism list and to lift sanctions.
These efforts by the two negotiators to stress the other side's concessions contributed to a false impression that Washington was taking North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism immediately. Hill had to explain Tuesday that "Getting off the list will depend on further denuclearization."
Hill made this statement just after a meeting with Japan's chief nuclear envoy in Sydney, Australia, where both were attending a session of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. It might not have been pure coincidence that Hill sought to set the record straight on the US bargain with North Korea just after meeting with his Japanese counterpart. The government of Japan's nationalistic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the only one involved in the six-party talks on North Korea that has been reluctant to take the steps needed to complete the denuclearization deal.
In an encouraging sign that President Bush fully backs the denuclearization deal Hill has been negotiating, the president has informed Abe that Washington does not want Japan to stand in the way of its completion. It's too bad that this combination of US firmness and diplomatic finesse has not been applied to other security challenges.