Dead End: The North Korean Crisis

On Wednesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that North Korea had barred its inspectors from the reprocessing facility in Yongbyon. This development closely followed Pyongyang’s demand that the agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, remove its seals from equipment and take down surveillance cameras. North Korea says it will start reprocessing plutonium in a few days. Even if it does not -- it appears its facility is not ready to do so -- it’s nonetheless clear that the country “will go its own way,” as its Foreign Ministry said last Friday. By going his own way, Kim Jong Il -- or whomever is running North Korea at this moment -- is repudiating three years of disarmament agreements reached during a half decade of negotiations

So is North Korea, by precipitating recent events, trying to improve its bargaining position and obtain more benefits from the international community? This is certainly a popular interpretation, especially because it looks as if Kim is trying to take advantage of a weak Bush administration. Christopher Hill, America’s chief negotiator at the Korean talks, says North Korea’s recent moves are just part of the “rough and tumble” of hard bargaining.

Is that so? If we want to know what’s really going on today, we need to examine past nuclear crises with North Korea. Let’s start with the first one. In February 1993, Hans Blix, then head of the IAEA, presented satellite imagery and other evidence to his governing board demonstrating that the North Koreans had not told the truth about their reactor at Yongbyon. As they listened to his presentation, Pyongyang’s delegates first sat with their mouths wide open, then denounced the satellite photos as doctored, and finally walked out. Based on overwhelming evidence, the IAEA board voted to demand “special inspections” of two Yongbyon sites that North Korea had earlier declared off limits.

Caught red-handed and left with no other options, Pyongyang, during the following month, announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global nuclear weapons pact. This triggered a series of events, both hurried negotiations and preparations for war, that eventually resulted in the Agreed Framework, a landmark deal signed in October 1994.