Few scenarios should trigger more worldwide alarm than the prospect of a desperate, secretive North Korea sharing its nuclear weapons technology with rogue regimes and terrorist groups. That's why the reciprocal steps between the North Koreans and the United States are important despite all the political theater. The agreement will help lower political tensions and open North Korea's nuclear program to international scrutiny.
President Bush announced Thursday he would take the country he once famously described as part of the "axis of evil" off the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
The move came in response to North Korea turning over a much-delayed report that detailed the totalitarian state's nuclear program. The administration also lifted some economic sanctions in what was the start of a tit-for-tat process that has as its ultimate aim the elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat.
North Korea declared it possessed 80 pounds of plutonium, the radioactive material in nuclear weapons. That is more than previously disclosed. But the country failed to give a fuller accounting of its nuclear activities, from its suspected efforts to enrich uranium to any sharing of weapons technology, most importantly with Syria or other destabilizing states.
Still, the deal breathes life into diplomatic efforts to peacefully halt the weapons program by laying a framework for new inspections of North Korean facilities and a host of multilateral security, trade and technical ties.
There remains a full range of fundamental differences the West has with North Korea over democracy, human rights, economic policy and other issues. The North is not a reliable partner. Its deceit and stonewalling over its nuclear program played into the hands of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others whose refusal for years to negotiate allowed Pyongyang to shock the world by detonating a small nuclear device in 2006.
Whether Bush's new stance is genuine is almost beside the point; the momentum for building on these achievements will fall to the next administration. But it pushes Cheney and other hard-liners to the side, helps revive the six-party talks over disarming the North and raises the stakes for Pyongyang to live up to its new international commitments.