TCS Daily

No Deal With NoKo

By Gregory Scoblete - September 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Is the news that North Korea has finally agreed to disband its offensive nuclear technology in exchange for economic incentives proof that diplomacy "does work after all" in the words of a New York Times editorial? After decades of deceit and double-dealing, has the North Korean regime made a fundamental change of heart regarding its pursuit of nuclear arms?

As far as can be divined from the "joint statement" released from the Six Party Talks in Beijing this week, the answer is, alas, no. In fact, a close reading of the statement suggests that despite the hosannas issuing from the usual quarters, there's a lot less to the statement than meets the eye.

The headline-grabbing assertion by the North that it is "committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" sounds nearly as good as its 1992 promise made in the joint declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that it would never "test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons" or "possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities." j

The 1992 promise entered into force in February of that year. By July, the South Koreans discovered a reprocessing facility in violation of the agreement and later in the same year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found evidence that North Korea had reprocessed more plutonium than it had initially disclosed to the Agency. So much for the "joint declaration."

The North's current promise also sounds eerily like its 1994 promise made in the Agreed Framework to help "denuclearize the Korean Peninsula." How the North planed to do that and simultaneously enrich uranium remains one of life's great paradoxes. In arms control diplomacy, however, past is never prologue. This week's joint statement gamely refers to the aforementioned 1992 joint declaration, noting that it should "be observed and implemented" -- a formulation that would be bleakly amusing if it wasn't so serious.[1]

Then there's the issue of light water nuclear reactors, the stumbling block that disbanded talks in September. This rather significant can was simply kicked down the road. The joint statement merely promises that the parties will "discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor to the DPRK." The subject had come up before and this is how the U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill phrased the U.S. position: "There's not too many other ways I know how to say 'no' without slipping into another language."

Is there a chance the U.S. position on light water reactors will soften at the "appropriate time?" Not likely. The North claims it needs a civilian nuclear program to meet its desperate energy needs but the South Koreans promised to help ameliorate those needs in July with a proposal to supply two million kilowatts of electric power to the DPRK over electric lines. The U.S., China, Japan and Russia have also promised energy aid which, unlike a reactor which would take years and billions of dollars to build, could be online much quicker with a much lower price tag.

Yet the North is insistent. Barely hours after the ink had dried on the joint statement than the North Korean foreign ministry issued a statement through the Korea Central News Agency that "it shouldn't even be dreamed of giving up our nuclear deterrent'' [sic] until the light water reactor is delivered. Given that the North Koreans converted their "research" reactor at Yongbyon into a weapons factory and later lied about it to IAEA inspectors in the early 1990s, it's highly unlikely that the Bush administration would consent to building another reactor, even the supposedly "proliferation resistant" light water variety.

Finally, and most importantly, is the status of the North vis-à-vis the South. This, after all, is the wellspring of the entire nuclear crisis. The joint statement refers to the intention of the two countries to "negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum."

The Korean War "ended" on July 27, 1953 only inasmuch as the active front-line battles subsided. The two countries signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, and for the North Korean leadership, reunifying the Peninsula under their rule is still a going concern. This is why in the face of mass deprivation the country plows nearly a third of its GDP into a war machine that notwithstanding the country's small size and skeletal economy is the fourth largest in the world. Despite its sizeable conventional force, the North is facing down not only the superior South Korean Army, but the United States and its vastly superior conventional and nuclear forces. Kim Jong-il doesn't want light water reactors, he wants South Korea. But he needs the former and the weapons they will produce if he is to obtain the later.

Recognizing that North Korea's desire for nuclear weapons stems not from a desire to mitigate its economic deprivation (and hence will not be amenable to economic incentives) but as a hedge against U.S. intervention in the case of a conflict does not necessarily imply that our current diplomatic effort, or diplomacy in general, is useless. Neither, I would argue, does the North's rich, quasi-comedic, history of deceit and double-dealing. We should just have much, much lower expectations for what diplomacy can be expected to achieve.

First we have to recognize that until the leadership of the DPRK ceases to view reunification under its rule as its organizing principle, it will never disarm. At best, diplomacy can produce a delay, forcing the North to move programs under ground and out of sight as they did during the 1990s. If the U.S. truly wants to remove the North's nuclear capacity it will have to countenance much stronger measures than cutting off shipments of heavy oil and re-inserting weapons inspectors. Given that both Democratic and Republican administrations, not to mention the countries down-range of the North's artillery and missiles, have looked askance at regime change (either militarily or through severing the North's economic lifeline), it's an unlikely way forward. That leaves the U.S. with two arrows in the quiver: diplomacy and containment.

Neither will end Jim Jong-il's quest for a nuclear bomb, and they should not be sold that way. But working in tandem they can slow the North's progress toward building out its arsenal and check its proliferation. Unless the U.S. is convinced that Jim Jong-il would pass nuclear components, or a working bomb, to a terrorist organization (which would justify more forceful measures) than these two options, which served the U.S. well against a more formidable Communist opponent, may have to suffice.

[1] These declarations are in fact a good sign post indicating, by reference to past agreements, just how many similar deals the North has undermined.


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