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Sunday, June 3, 2001

Past obscures Korea's nuclear future


SOLVING THE NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR PUZZLE, edited by David Albright and Kevin O'Neill. Washington, D.C.: ISIS Press, 2000, 333 pp., $29.95 (paper).

We may never know how close the world came to war in 1994, but most accounts suggest the margin was slim. Suspicions about North Korea's nuclear program were at their peak. There were open discussions of a naval quarantine or a pre-emptive strike to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear facilities and send the regime the message that the world would not tolerate its "rogue" behavior.

Fortunately, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter handled things in his headstrong way, met with North Korea's "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, and struck a deal. That arrangement, after being fleshed out by U.S. and North Korean diplomats, is now known as the Agreed Framework and has been the subject of controversy ever since. For hawks, it is a bete noir that stayed the military's hand and kept it from ending the North Korean threat -- and maybe overthrowing the regime in Pyongyang. For moderates, it is proof that North Korea is ready to deal -- and can be dealt with.

"Solving the North Korean Puzzle" sides firmly with the moderates. Given the evidence the contributors marshal to make their case, the conclusion seems unavoidable. The editors argue that the Agreed Framework "has frozen North Korea's known nuclear program and thus prevented North Korea from acquiring a large supply of separated plutonium. In this way, the agreement has enabled the U.S. and its allies to avoid costly military steps that would be necessary if North Korea were expanding its nuclear arsenal. It has also provided breathing space to improve the overall relationship through diplomatic engagement."

So far, so good. The problem is that the Agreed Framework is an ongoing arrangement. It will take years to implement and there is ample time for things to go wrong. (In fact, the original assumption behind the deal was that North Korea would collapse before it was complete; now, almost no one believes that scenario.) There have been minor spats already; true to form, North Korea has done its best to eke out every bit of leverage.

One critical issue was built into the Agreed Framework: Before the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization can turn over the light-water reactors it has agreed to install, North Korea must come into full compliance with IAEA nuclear safeguards. That promises to be the most difficult issue in the entire KEDO process. After all, Pyongyang's failure to answer IAEA questions about its nuclear program triggered the original crisis in 1993. In the negotiations that followed, the U.S. decided that it was more important to focus on the "destiny" of North Korea's nuclear program rather than its "ancestry."

The inconsistencies in North Korea's declaration to the IAEA were put off, but they must be answered. That is no way to avoid this "impending cliff" in the already torturous relationship between Pyongyang and the international community. Resolving the questions will be time-consuming; it could take up to three years, and even then there will be arguments about how "satisfactory" the North Korean answers are. And remember, the inspectors have to prove a negative -- that North Korean declarations are not false.

In other words, there will be compromises about "how much" North Korea has complied with the IAEA safeguards regime. Those decisions will be driven by political considerations and delicate negotiations. They are complicated, not only by the nature of the government involved and the stakes, but by the sheer number of interested parties and their various interests. In addition to the government in Pyongyang, there is its counterpart in Seoul, as well as those in Tokyo, Washington and even Beijing.

The IAEA also has a critical role to play in this dispute: Its credibility is at stake and any deal it strikes with North Korea will have an impact on its operations elsewhere in the world.

IAEA policy is more important than we might think: Unlike the United Nations, it is not just a vehicle through which member countries act. The IAEA changed its mind-set after the Persian Gulf War, when inspectors discovered that they had been hoodwinked by Baghdad. Determined not to be fooled again, its inspections became more rigorous. The unprecedented "special inspection" it requested in Pyongyang in 1993 was the product of this new mentality. (The chronology of the dispute between the agency and North Korea that is provided in an appendix in "Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle" is the most complete available.)

The Agreed Framework takes us deeper into uncharted waters. Editor David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, argues that an unprecedented situation calls for unprecedented solutions. He contends that the best way to resolve the history question will be for North Korea to become as transparent as possible about its nuclear program. That is not going to answer all the doubts, but it will signal Pyongyang's commitment to safeguards. "A North Korean policy of transparency could become the strongest evidence of its compliance. So far, however, North Korea has provided few indications that it intends to cooperate." The bad blood between the IAEA and Pyongyang will only make the issue tougher to resolve.

Worse, what happens if the check reveals that North Korea has lied and has its own plutonium stockpile -- or even a weapon or two? That is possible: The inconsistencies that the IAEA uncovered have never been satisfactorily answered.

The difficulties are colossal, but they must be surmounted. Negotiating with North Korea has been a frustrating and sometimes infuriating process, but there is no alternative. In his contribution, Joel Wit, State Department coordinator for the Agreed Framework from 1995-1999, notes that the spent fuel unloaded in 1994 contained enough plutonium to make five or six weapons. "North Korea quickly could have become an overt nuclear power on par with Israel, if not larger."

In his chapter, Leon Sigal, author of "Disarming Strangers," another must-read on this subject, argues that North Korea is a tough negotiator, but it is scrupulous about its commitments. North Korea likes brinkmanship, but it escalates when it feels the U.S. isn't paying attention. Sigal points out that Pyongyang plays "tit-for-tat, cooperating when Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in order to get the United States to deal with it in good faith."

The list of perceived U.S. failings is long: Washington has not proceeded with dropping economic sanctions as North Korea expected, liaison offices have not been opened, the provision of fuel oil has been slow and begrudging, Washington and Seoul have gone ahead with military exercises, and construction has been delayed, although both sides are to blame for that.

In some respects, it is a wonder that the Agreed Framework has survived. But it is always important -- as this essential book reminds us -- to remember the bottom line. Without the ban created by the agreement, North Korea could have 300-400 kg of plutonium, enough for 60 to 80 nuclear weapons.

Progress will be difficult. Wit argues that the U.S. must come to grips with two tough items, in addition to the compliance question. The first is the willingness of the West to "buy" North Korea's distasteful activities, such as missile production. It sounds like extortion or blackmail, but Pyongyang will not give up hard currency for good vibes.

Second, since U.S. demands go to the heart of North Korea's national-security concerns, some reconfiguration of the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula is going to be necessary. Thus far, both items are taboo.

"Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle" makes the best case yet for why the U.S. must compromise. It covers every issue of importance: the standoff with the IAEA that prompted the crisis, the scientific evidence behind its concerns, the North-South summit in the summer of 2000 that seemed to transform the political situation on the Peninsula, the Perry report, an evaluation of KEDO, and criticism by Richard Armitage, number two at the U.S. State Department and the man responsible for overseeing the agreement's implementation and future negotiations.

The 20-plus pages of satellite photos of the Yongbyon facility are especially fascinating, although I'm not sure I can see all the clues that analysts found. But then, like all this stuff, you have to dig deep to get the details. "Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle" amply rewards the patient and the tenacious.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, and a contributing editor to The Japan Times.


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