The conclusion of a six-nation agreement under which the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea is to disclose all details of its nuclear programme and dismantle three major facilities in Yongbyon by the end of the year comes as a welcome demonstration of the efficacy of sustained, creative diplomacy. While the Bush administration appears intent on grabbing much of the credit for this achievement, the truth is that the deal would not have come through had the other parties involved not stood on principle. China, South Korea, and Russia insisted all along that the path of negotiation should not be abandoned. With these countries holding firm, Washington was unable to pursue its preferred approach of confronting Pyongyang with sanctions and threats of a regime change. The negotiation process began yielding results after an accord was reached in February 2007 and the latest agreement signals the start of the second phase. Within five months of the February deal, North Korea honoured the commitment made in the first phase to close down the Yongbyon reactor and other facilities. As now envisaged, the third phase will end with Pyongyang surrendering all fissile material, including the ten nuclear warheads it is believed to possess. The de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula might not happen in a hurry, but the results achieved in the six-nation talks were hardly imaginable a year ago after the Kim Il Jong regime carried out a nuclear test in October 2006.

However, the process of negotiations could unravel if contentious issues are not tackled early and sincerely. North Korea received 100,000 tonnes of fuel oil during the first phase and has been promised a further 900,000 tonnes, as it fulfils its commitments in the second phase. However, Pyongyang has not given up the demand that the United States deliver the two light-water reactors it offered as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework. The two sides might not be able to resolve this issue unless they overcome disagreement over another matter. Washington alleges that Pyongyang has a clandestine uranium-enrichment programme and insists on full disclosure. The Kim Il Jong administration continues to deny the existence of any such programme. The non-nuclear components of the October deal could also throw up problems. Washington’s promise to work towards removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism is contingent on Pyongyang’s fulfilment of its second-phase commitments. With hardliners in the U.S. already criticising the October deal, there is no guarantee that the sanctions in place will be lifted. If North Korea, which needs large inflows of foreign capital, is to deliver on its side of the bargain, the financial squeeze must be ended.