Beyond the shock value

Deep inside Mount Myohyansan in North Korea, down marble corridors lit by flickering lights and galleries holding bizarre gifts, is a baseball. Next to it is a photograph of the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and next to her is Kim Il Sung, eternal president (deceased) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Baseball and photograph are held in North Korea's International Friendship Exhibition, and mark the last occasion when relations between North Korea and the US began to thaw.

Back in the mid-90s, Albright and President Bill Clinton believed that the North could be weaned from a nascent nuclear programme if its fuel-starved economy, reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, was promised fuel shipments and water-pressured power reactors. In return, the Yongbyon nuclear reactor would be decommissioned. But fuel shipments ceased and the reactor plants were never completed. The US administration didn't believe that North Korea would keep its side of the bargain - fully expecting it to go the way of the former Soviet satellites, and collapse.

George Bush has not sent a photograph of himself to Kim Il-sung's successor, Kim Jong-il, but in early December the US president sent him a letter. Bush wanted to remind the man he once professed to "hate" that he had to stick to his side of the bargain, full disclosure of his country's nuclear capabilities by December 31: a deadline since missed.

For in the years since the breakdown of the last agreement North Korea has refused to collapse, although an estimated three million people have died of starvation and sickness as the economy went into meltdown. North Korea has watched old allies implode or, like China, swap Marxism-Leninism for Market Leninism. Isolated, and determined on regime survival, its curious mixture of self-reliance, emperor-worship and Stalinism proved more resilient than East German communism. Kim Jong-il pushed ahead with his country's nuclear programme, benefiting from the AQ Khan nuclear trading network from Pakistan, and watching as Iraq, a country with no nuclear weapons, was overwhelmed by the US military.

The Labour MEP Glyn Ford, an unsung hero of a decade-long shuttle diplomacy that has periodically opened North Korea to relations with the EU, argues in his recently published book, North Korea on the Brink, that Bush exaggerated the North's nuclear programme in order not just to devalue the 1994 agreement, but also to fit the neoconservative claim that North Korea formed part of an axis of evil. If that is the case, Bush helped Kim join the nuclear club. Just as remarkably, the same Bush administration has led to the disablement of the Yongbyon nuclear plant, although the removal of 800 fuel rods from this decrepit facility meant that the December 31 deadline was missed. Yet most experts agree that only genuine technical difficulties have held progress up - and the chief US chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, says that the process is "going well".

It is the North's failure to issue the promised disclosure of its nuclear weapons inventory that has encouraged a belief that North Korea will never own up. But it hasn't received the energy supplies it was promised; and, in the month that US intelligence acknowledged that claims of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme didn't stand up to scrutiny, and a real nuclear weapons state - Pakistan - slipped into chaos, Ford offered another, less than shocking, explanation for North Korea's failure to disclose: Kim may simply not possess all that the Bush administration once accused him of having.

Mark Seddon, diplomatic correspondent for al-Jazeera English.