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Friday, July 27, 2007

North Korea will still want its reactors

HONG KONG — The failure of the six-party talks to agree on a schedule for North Korea to declare and disable all of its nuclear programs shows that there are major obstacles ahead, although the first phase — providing for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor — went relatively smoothly, despite a four-month delay over the return of $25 million in frozen funds to Pyongyang.

American negotiator Christopher Hill said he still hopes that North Korea's nuclear facilities can all be disabled by yearend. However, the lack of substantive progress at the July talks suggests that the target is too optimistic.

As Washington focuses on the objective of bringing about complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of North Korea, Pyongyang is more interested in what it can get in return.

For this reason, the North Koreans have from the beginning insisted on the principle of "commitment for commitment, action for action." This means that for every concession made by North Korea, it must receive something from the other parties.

In the first phase, which saw the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the North Koreans are receiving 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

In the next phase, North Korea will have to not only shut down the Yongbyon reactor but also dismantle it so that it can never be restarted again. In addition, North Korea is to disclose and disable all of its other nuclear-weapons programs.

Much is at stake and Pyongyang undoubtedly wants to extract as much as possible from its interlocutors — primarily the United States but also Japan, South Korea, Russia and China.

The North Korean negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, said as much before he left Beijing after the six-party talks.

"It is obvious what we're supposed to do," he told reporters. "But the other nations seem to be not so well prepared."

Kim also disclosed what North Korea is demanding as the price for dismantling its nuclear programs: "What we're discussing right now is the current nuclear plan — the Yongbyon nuclear facility stopping its operation, being disabled and ultimately getting dismantled." He then added, "For dismantlement, a light-water reactor should be brought in."

Under a 1994 agreement between North Korea and the U.S., Washington promised to provide North Korea with two light-water reactors that could not be easily used to make radioactive materials for weapons. That 1994 agreement was abrogated after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of violating its terms by secretly seeking to make nuclear weapons by using highly enriched uranium.

However, North Korea has never dropped its insistence on getting the two light-water reactors. In 2005, when the six-party talks made a breakthrough and issued a joint statement on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea insisted on its right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

In a compromise, the joint statement said the five other parties "expressed their respect and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision of light water reactor" to North Korea. The U.S. at the time made it clear that any provision of light-water reactors would have to be after North Korea's complete disarmament. But North Korea took the position that it would disarm only if Washington first provided the reactors.

If North Korea insists that it be provided the light-water reactors before it agrees to disable its nuclear programs, it would be throwing a huge money wrench into the whole negotiating process.

While the Bush administration has softened its hard line, aimed at bringing about regime change, it is still opposed to providing reactors of any sort to North Korea. Unless Washington is prepared to back down from this position, the only way out would be a compromise whereby the U.S. offered the North Koreans something else that they consider to be equally attractive or important. This will have to go beyond such North Korean demands as their removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Another potential disagreement is whether North Korea will disclose and dismantle only its weapons programs, or whether it will be willing to give up its existing stock of nuclear weapons as well. This issue was not addressed in the Feb. 13 agreement.

So, while the participants in Beijing may have been smiling for the cameras, the likelihood is that neither the North Koreans nor the Americans have shifted their positions sufficiently to accommodate the other side. There is a lot more negotiating to do before the world can be sure that the Korean Peninsula has really been denuclearized.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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