[For another take, read Claudia Rosett @ PajamasXpress: Condi Rice Wants Us to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Kim Jong Il]
Today, North Korea appeared closer to abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions than it has been in twelve years. The UPI reports:
WASHINGTON, June 26 (UPI) — North Korea submitted its nuclear program declaration Thursday, a move that will lead to the lifting of some sanctions, a White House statement said. … Under an agreement reached last year between countries, North Korea agreed to denuclearization in exchange for in exchange for diplomatic and economic incentives. North Korea pledged to disable all of its nuclear facilities, the statement said, “and tomorrow (Friday) will destroy the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor.”
The United States will lift the provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act “as well as announcing our intent to rescind North Korea’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror in 45 days,” in response to North Korea’s actions.
A negotiated disarmament of North Korea appeared to be well under way with the signing of the Agreed Framework in October 1994. Under the terms agreed between the Clinton Administration and Pyongyang, the North Koreans agreed to stop the construction of two nuclear reactors capable of producing plutonium in exchange for an American funded light-water reactor and fuel oil.
But in 2002 a Bush administration diplomatic delegation accused Pyongyang of cheating, alleging that they were secretly operating a highly enriched uranium program, which provided an alternative route to the Bomb. In the acrimonious atmosphere that followed, North Korea once again withdrew from Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, the United States declared North Korea part of the Axis of Evil and the Agreed Framework collapsed.
The proponents of the Agreed Framework accused the Bush administration of derailing a done deal. Selig Harrison, writing in Foreign Affairs in 2005, cast doubt on claims the North Koreans were really cheating, arguing that although Pyongyang was indeed acquiring centrifuges capable of enriching uranium, they were in quantities insufficient to support a serious weapons program. Although “Pyongyang clearly did violate that accord by pursuing uranium-enrichment efforts … and thus, technically, violated the 1994 Agreed Framework as well”, the Bush administration had overreacted and by diplomatically confronting North Korea, risked provoking them into using their existing stock of fuel for weapons development. When Pyongyang conducted its highly publicized atomic bomb test in 2006 the Agreed Framework appeared to be in ruins.
In retrospect, one of the factors which provoked the Bush administration into treating North Korea with suspicion was Pakistan. Harrison wrote at the time:
A June 2002 CIA assessment that was leaked after the Kelly visit said that Pakistan had provided North Korea with centrifuge prototypes and blueprints, but that it was uncertain how many, if any, centrifuges North Korea had made from them. … Some intelligence suggesting this possibility did surface during the Clinton presidency. “We raised fairly generalized concerns with Pakistan about nuclear cooperation with North Korea,” recalls Robert Einhorn, Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. “But we didn’t cite chapter and verse because we didn’t have chapter and verse to cite.”
But although US-North Korean relations appeared to have broken down under the impact of new intelligence, a new negotiated track to disarmament was already being laid in August 2003. Called the Six Party Talks, it differed procedurally from the Agreement Framework in that it involved, as the name suggested, six parties: China, South Korea, Russia, Japan, the US and North Korea itself. Under the new approach, the disarmament of North Korea would be linked not merely to a normalization of relations between Pyongyang and Washington, but to a comprehensive settlement of tensions that had existed since World War 2 and the Korean War, adjusting Pyongyang’s relationship with Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.
The talks steadily progressed through six rounds. Even North Korea’s supposed nuclear weapons test could not derail it. Indeed those results were denigrated shortly afterward by CIA Director Michael Hayden, who declared, “the United States does not recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state … because the nuclear test last year was a failure.” The door to a comprehensive agreement was still open to diplomats.
Today’s dramatic announcement of the decommissioning of the Yongbon nuclear power facility and the delisting of North Korea from the rolls of terrorist states represents the results of the sixth round of negotiations and brings the process close to its final phase. The agreement of February 2007 creates a three stage end game along which we are halfway along.
In the first part of the deal, North Korea said it would shut its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days. In return, it was promised 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, to be supplied by the five other countries involved in the nuclear negotiations.
In the second stage — where we are now — North Korea agreed to declare and disable all its existing nuclear facilities, a process that would be supervised by experts from the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, it has been promised a further 950,000 tons of fuel. The US has also agreed to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
A third stage would deal with any nuclear weapons that North Korea may already possess.
The architecture of the endgame is obvious. The first two stages are designed to destroy the last vestiges of the North Korean capacity to produce any more fissile material. The third — and possibly more difficult — stage is to wrest from Pyongyang’s grip any nuclear material that may already exist. The Times Online says that the original sticking point, the resolution of the uranium enrichment program, has been deferred to the very end.
It is unclear whether it will also include an inventory of the precise number of nuclear warheads, or whether North Korea will own up to a second programme of uranium enrichment that it has always denied, despite US accusations. If these elements are missing, the Bush Administration will be accused of compromising its principles for the sake of moving forward the Six Party Talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament, which also include Japan, Russia and South Korea as well as the host, China.
Time will tell whether the Six Party talks will succeed in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula or whether it will founder, as did the Agreed Framework before it, on some new difficulty. But two factors make the new agreement more robust than the 1994 agreement. First, the multilateral format means that any North Korean double-cross would alienate not only the United States, but South Korea, Japan, Russia and most importantly, Pyongyang’s patron China. North Korea has a lot more to lose by welshing on the Six Party Talks than it did on the Agreed Framework.
Secondly, because their fissile production line will effectively be dismantled — the Yongbon cooling will be demolished — North Korea’s remaining blackmail leverage consists of a mere handful of low-yield nuclear material. And with the United States positioned to watch Pakistan and Iran, the future of any clandestine program is in serious doubt. When Hayden scoffed at the yield of the North Korean nuclear weapons, he was signalling that Pyongyang did not have enough cards in hand to effectively threaten South Korea, the US and Japan. Without a working nuclear program to build more weapons, Pyongyang has nothing to gain from cheating. North Korea is like a man with a pistol surrounded by a company of infantry, and the logical thing for it to do is lay down its arms and fix its economy. While North Korea has long played the game of intimidation to get its way, this time it may be out of ammo.