The world has puzzled over the significance of the almost complete news blackout that followed the visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to North Korea earlier this month. Now we know the reason: North Korea admitted that it had a nuclear weapons development program, a violation of the agreement that the two countries reached in 1994. The troubling development casts new light on North Korea’s behavior and calls into question the steps toward “normalcy” that Pyongyang has made in recent weeks.

Now, Japan, the United States and South Korea, along with other nations, must coordinate efforts to convince the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program — and any other programs committed to the development of weapons of mass destruction — and honor its international agreements. There can be no normalization of relations with a country that fails to honor its international commitments.

Mr. Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang was the first high-level outreach by a U.S. official to the North since President George W. Bush took office. The U.S. administration has made no secret of its feelings about the North Korean government (Mr. Bush included it in his “axis of evil”), its suspicions of Pyongyang’s intentions and its contempt for the Agreed Framework, the 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang that was designed to cap the North’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors. This week’s developments suggest U.S. skepticism was justified.

At the meeting in Pyongyang, Mr. Kelly reportedly laid out a list of U.S. concerns and said North Korean efforts to address those issues could lead to an improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations. Among those concerns was evidence that the North was cheating on the Agreed Framework. Evidently, to Mr. Kelly’s surprise, North Korea admitted it had a nuclear weapons development program. Mr. Kelly briefed Seoul and Tokyo on the news and then hurried home as the U.S. planned its response.

The North Korean announcement has been rightfully denounced. A spokesman said Mr. Bush called it “troubling, sobering news,” but the president did not make a statement himself. That is part of a decision not to increase tensions and to work through diplomatic channels to address the issue. The U.S. is seeking a “peaceful solution,” explained the spokesman. Both the U.S. and South Korea have called on Pyongyang to honor its promises to renounce the development of nuclear arms.

Japan’s reaction has been similar. Government officials warned that the nuclear weapons program could hinder efforts to normalize bilateral ties. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that, because he had been briefed on U.S. concerns before his trip to Pyongyang last month, he raised the nuclear weapons issue. Speaking to reporters, Mr. Koizumi said, “We want (North Korea) to take measures in a sincere manner to get rid of suspicions about a nuclear (weapons program) in the future.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda warned that normalization will not go forward if North Korea is breaking its promise and said the news could prompt reconsideration of Japan’s role in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which is building the reactors as part of the Agreed Framework.

Three big questions remain unanswered. The first is whether North Korea has nuclear weapons. Pyongyang admitted to having a development program; that does not mean it has weapons. Even U.S. intelligence experts are unclear whether the North has a nuclear bomb.

The second question is why North Korea admitted it had been cheating. There are several theories: The first is that the North wanted to focus U.S. attention and get Washington to make a deal that would exchange economic aid and security guarantees for the nuclear program. Another theory posits that the North wanted to come clean, as it did when it admitted to having abducted Japanese citizens. In so doing, it was attempting to clean the slate and get relations with the U.S. off to a fresh start. The third explanation is that Pyongyang was angry following accusations at the meeting with Mr. Kelly and admitted the program to force the U.S. to take North Korea seriously.

The third and most important question is what will happen next. The emphasis on a diplomatic solution is correct. War is not an option. Mr. Kelly is now traveling to Tokyo and Seoul to consult with allies on a response. These governments must stress the need for Pyongyang to honor its commitments and to abandon its attempts to build weapons of mass destruction. The North’s admission that it cheated on the Agreed Framework makes diplomacy tougher, since it will be harder to believe any pledge that Pyongyang makes. But that does not make the pursuit of a diplomatic solution any less urgent.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.