IAEA inspectors returned to the job at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in North Korea after Washington backed down in the standoff over Pyongyang’s listing as a terror-supporting nation.  The DPRK agreed to more verification steps at all suspected nuclear sites, even those that Kim Jong-Il has not declared, in exchange for the delisting.  Disablement activities have recommenced:

“Disablement work has resumed as was promised yesterday. We’re back to the previous status quo,” an official at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said.

North Korea readmitted IAEA monitors to its Yongbyon nuclear complex on Monday and pledged to restart measures to eliminate its atom bomb program, following a pact with Washington that defused rows over how to verify the process. North Korea reinstated U.N. monitoring of the reactor as well as a mothballed nuclear fuel-fabrication facility and reprocessing plant that had produced weapons-grade plutonium. …

The U.S. State Department announced on Saturday that it had delisted the reclusive Stalinist state after Pyongyang agreed to a series of verification steps.

North Korea agreed to access for experts to all declared nuclear facilities and, based on “mutual consent,” undeclared sites.

Anne Applebaum underscores the unreal aspects of this Kabuki dance:

This isn’t a new revelation, of course; Panmunjom has been a monument to the creepiness of North Korea for more than five decades. But in the week when the Bush administration announced its decision to remove North Korea from its list of “terrorist” nations, it’s worth focusing again on the strange, ritualistic nature of the relationship between North Korea and the outside world: In its way, after all, the administration’s announcement was strange and ritualistic, too.

For the record, North Korea has sold missile technology to Syria and Libya, has assassinated diplomats, and has kidnapped Japanese and South Korean citizens and refuses to give a full accounting of their fate. North Korea also keeps untold numbers of its own citizens in concentration camps, which are direct copies of those built by Stalin, and knowingly starves many of its citizens to death as well. By any normal definition, North Korea is still a “terrorist” state, and everyone knows it. The administration’s decision was thus not a recognition of any change in North Korean behavior. It was, rather, a negotiated exchange of one set of words for another: We withdraw terrorist—and, in exchange, they offer a “promise,” once again, to dismantle their nuclear facilities. Ritual favors were bestowed as well: Presumably as a sign of the respect in which they hold him, the U.S. official negotiating these terms was, on his last visit to the north, ceremonially allowed to travel by car through Panmunjom instead of being forced to fly in from Beijing.

There may, of course, eventually be more “real” elements to the deal. There is probably more aid money in the offing, though no one really believes it will go to those who are once again starving. There is talk of more advanced verification systems as well, though it’s widely assumed the North Koreans will again try to cheat. Still, how this White House, which so long opposed any negotiations with North Korea, rationalizes these talks to itself is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this is some kind of holding pattern. Maybe they think the almost-invisible dictator, Kim Jong-il, is really dead. Or maybe they fear that Pyongyang will otherwise detonate another surprise nuclear device on, say, the day of the U.S. elections.

On the one hand, as Winston Churchill once said, jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war.  That only holds true, however, when both sides want to avoid the latter.  Otherwise, one risks conceding the initiative to the enemy.  So far, Kim has shown no such preference, and the concessions made to North Korean sensibilities this week underscores the one-sidedness in which these negotiations have been conducted.

Applebaum may be right when she speculates that the Bush administration wants to maintain the status quo and wait for whatever follows Kim.  That may be a good strategy, if we have a good grasp on the power players and the likely successors in the regime.  I’ve never had the impression that anyone really knows this, not even the Chinese, who are Kim’s closest significant allies.

Disablement is a positive step, as long as we can verify that we’re disabling all of Kim’s nuclear assets.  If we can get more verification teams on the ground to confirm that, then that’s a positive step forward.  I’d feel more optimistic if it didn’t appear that our team is simply reacting to Kim’s provocations rather than pressing a comprehensive disarmament strategy.