Finally, following a Feb. 23-24 meeting between the United States and North Korea in Beijing, the two countries announced that North Korea would suspend operations at Yongbyon, invite IAEA inspectors to monitor the suspension, and implement moratoriums on nuclear and long-range missile tests. The United States said that it would provide North Korea 240,000 metric tons of food aid under strict monitoring.
North Korea's version of the understanding allowed for satellite launches, while the U.S. version did not. In April, Pyongyang conducted a long-range missile launch, which failed, and another opportunity was lost.
Clearly, North Korea's negotiators are slippery and look for every advantage. But President Obama and his team have dithered and missed their fleeting chances to use diplomacy to rein in North Korea's dangerous weapons pursuits.
Pyongyang has long tried to leverage its nuclear and missile programs to convince Washington to normalize relations and extract much needed aid, and it has reneged on its commitments. That may make negotiations with the North politically difficult and personally distasteful.
Nevertheless, it's been negotiations with the North that have succeeded in curbing its nuclear pursuits in the past, beginning with the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea's plutonium weapons program for eight years, and the 2005 denuclearization deal that committed North Korea to pursue a step-by-step process leading to verifiable and complete disarmament.
For Washington and its allies in Asia, it is essential that North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities remain as limited as possible. As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Jan. 2, the Korean Peninsula is "at a turning point."
Today, North Korea possesses enough plutonium for fewer than a dozen bombs, but if left unchecked, it could amass a larger and more deadly arsenal. North Korea has built centrifuge arrays that could be improved and expanded to enable it to generate enough highly enriched uranium for more nuclear weapons. A successful, third nuclear test could allow North Korea to prove a miniaturized warhead design that might be used to arm its ballistic missiles. Additional ballistic missile tests could give North Korea a militarily significant nuclear weapons delivery option.
The reality for the Obama administration, and all states in the region, including North Korea, is that they can only reduce tensions and improve stability through restraint and a resumption of a serious, direct, and ongoing dialogue and concrete, verifiable action-for-action follow-up steps.
In particular, there must be renewed efforts by China and others, especially the United States, to hold North Korea to its Feb. 29, 2012 commitment to refrain from further missile and nuclear weapons tests, and to allow for international inspection of its nuclear weapons facilities.
Rather than wait for the North Koreans to ask for renewed talks following the next round of international condemnation, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul need to overcome their frustration and anger with the North and re-evaluate their current approach and, eventually, take the initiative by re-engaging with Pyongyang through serious, sustained direct talks.
Although North Korea's stubborn leaders may not be willing to negotiate away their nuclear weapons program altogether, they may still be willing to abandon portions of it in exchange for improved relations with the United States and the international community.
Even North Korea's leaders realize that the nationalistic fervor created by the test will soon fade and that it won't do anything to help revive its economy, deliver much-needed food aid, or encourage economic investment from South Korea.
Doing nothing in the face of the risk of new and more dangerous North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities is not a prudent option. When pursued, the strategy that has succeeded best in limiting North Korea's nuclear and missile potential over the years has been U.S.-led disarmament diplomacy. We shouldn't be afraid to engage.