In the debate, Barack Obama called North Korea's nuclear re-boot a symptom of the country's internal politics. But this nuclear breakdown may have less to do with Pyongyang than it does with internal divisions in Washington, D.C.
This summer, Kim delivered on his part of the nuclear bargain: providing an account of his nuclear activities, submitting the North's plutonium program to safeguards, and destroying Yongbyon's cooling tower. In exchange, President Bush said on June 26 that he would remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list after 45 days.
But then conservatives in Congress or the vice president's office--or, likely, a combination of both--pressured Bush to pull back and insist on verification measures that go far beyond the immediate task of keeping the plutonium program bottled up, according to Jeffrey Lewis, the New American Foundation's nonproliferation director. The administration ended up sending U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill back to tell the North Koreans, 'There's a new price for being de-listed. You have to accept these kinds of inspections'--including unlimited, spur-of-the moment access for the IAEA anywhere in the country. The North Koreans responded, essentially, by telling him to do something unprintable.
As several sources explain, conservatives have long tried to scuttle talks with the North Koreans by demanding "unreasonable" verification measures that Pyongyang considers humiliating. They've succeeded for the moment, moving us back toward the 2002-2006 status quo: an impasse.
"I don't know if Kim is stroked out or not, but they are running this according to the playbook," Lewis says. In other words, the North Koreans are doing exactly what they said they'd do if we didn't remove them from the terrorism list, as we agreed to do on June 26: They've stopped disabling their plutonium program and started rebuilding it.