Nuclear Deal with North Korea : Will it Work this Time?

Harsh V. Pant

If there was one foreign policy issue that took center stage during President Bush’s recent trip to Asia , it was North Korea ’s nuclear weapons program. The US President forced South Korea to adopt a hard-line position vis-à-vis its northern neighbor, thereby following Japan ’s lead. The US-Japan-South Korea trio presented a united front in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program without additional concessions, despite Chinese persuasion to demonstrate “sincere flexibility” in negotiations.

In September after more than two years of slow-moving, protracted negotiations that verged on collapse, North Korea finally agreed to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security guarantees, economic aid and energy benefits. The agreement involves North Korea , US, and the remaining four participants ( China , South Korea , Japan , and Russia ) of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks to find a lasting solution to the North Korean nuclear imbroglio. North Korea ’s successful fulfillment would mean an extraordinary breakthrough after more than a decade of failed efforts by the US to contain one of the world’s most serious proliferation threats.

The drama began in 2002 when the US accused North Korea of violating the previous accord, the Agreed Framework, negotiated by the Clinton Administration in 1994 to end North Korea ’s nuclear program. North Korea in turn withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and threw out international nuclear inspectors before finally admitting that it indeed had an active nuclear program. The US refused to deal with North Korea bilaterally and went in for multilateral negotiations involving China , South Korea , Japan , and Russia .  

These negotiations went on for more than two years with no apparent end in sight but none of the six nations involved were ready to abandon these negotiations. The Bush Administration had warned that should that round of negotiations fail, they would refer North Korea ’s nuclear weapons program to the United Nations Security Council in a search for economic and other sanctions. Other nations, including China with its veto power, indicated that they would not favor such a course while North Korea had warned that it would consider it tantamount to war.

The multinational agreement on North Korea ’s nuclear program arrived just in time as the tempers were starting to get frayed on all sides. For the first time, North Korea’s communist leadership has formally agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and said that it would return “at an early date” to the NPT and accompanying international safeguards. In return, the US agreed to take steps to normalize relations with the North and, together with South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, provide it with aid, including a new light-water reactor “at an appropriate time” for generating electricity.

This accord could become possible only after a compromise formula was proposed by China . The Bush Administration dropped its opposition to North Korea receiving a light-water reactor in the future, a softening of its position that the demise of the North’s nuclear ambitions must be irreversible. The US has argued that a light-water reactor would cost $2 billion to $3 billion and would take a decade to build. While a light-water reactor does not produce fuel for atomic weapons the way the North’s existing modified-graphite reactors do, it still raises proliferation risks and cannot be a first step in the complete nuclear disarmament of the communist nation. North Korea , on its part, has agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and all of its existing nuclear programs and to return to the global non-proliferation regime. No doubt, North Korea has driven a hard bargain. North Korea ’s despotic regime has long wanted to end its diplomatic isolation and ensure its own survival and had long tried to use its nuclear weapons program as a bargaining chip. This agreement could potentially generate goodwill for North Korea , increase aid, and disincentize its nuclear program.

China has played an extremely important role in this process. China maintained that it opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear program, however, it did not immediately respond to US pleas on further pressuring Kim Jong Il. Only when the US clearly stated that it could no longer tolerate the status quo and squeezed the communist regime, China became more active. Only recently the US moved against Macau Bank for laundering money for North Korea , leading to a run on the bank and making it clear that US was willing to explore other options if diplomacy fails. Moreover, China is also not interested in having a nuclear Japan , a real possibility without the current agreement. China’s vital interest in a denuclearized Korean peninsula and continued stability in its relations with the US and Japan forced China to come down stronger on North Korea and North Korea due to its heavy reliance on China for food and oil had to take seriously China’s position.

The devil, however, is in the details. Soon after the agreement was signed, North Korea threw a spanner in the euphoria by declaring that it will not eliminate its weapons program until supplied with civilian nuclear reactors. Though this toughening of North Korea ’s posture was shrugged of as part of its negotiating tactics, it was just the beginning of the difficulties that emerged when further negotiations commenced to flesh out the nuclear agreement. Moreover, the issues of timing, the degree of intrusiveness of inspections in the closed North Korean state, and the nature and scope of any peaceful nuclear program the North is allowed to retain are also likely to prove contentious. Probably that’s why the US was very cautious in its response to the signing of the agreement. In 1994, after reaching a similar deal with the Clinton Administration, North Korea froze activity at one nuclear complex but secretly launched a program to develop a bomb by other means. It was only after eight long years that the deceit was discovered but it was already too late then.

To make matters worse, just before the latest round of talks started in November, it was discovered that North Korea plans to finish a 50-megawatt nuclear reactor in as little as two years, allowing it to produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for ten weapons annually. The nuclear reactor would represent a ten-fold leap in North Korea ’s ability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, thereby giving it significant leverage in negotiations aimed at dismantling its nuclear program.

It did not take long for the nuclear pact to founder on differing interpretations of what it actually means. Follow-up talks intended to begin translating the vaguely worded September agreement into a concrete plan broke up in November without so much as a consensus on when they would resume. North Korea kept insisting on help to build the long-sought light-water reactor to produce electricity before it gives up its weapons program while the US maintained that North Korea must disarm completely before a reactor can even be discussed. North Korea also demanded that Washington lift sanctions against firms suspected of weapons proliferation and stop accusing the North of counterfeiting US money. Washington had imposed sanctions in October on eight North Korean companies accused of acting as fronts for sales of banned missile, nuclear or bio-weapons technology. The US also accuses North Korea of producing high-quality counterfeit US $100 bills known as “super-notes.” North Korea accused the US of spoiling the atmosphere of negotiations when the US imposed a ban of American financial institutions doing business with Banco Delta Asia in Macau , accusing it of laundering money for North Korea .

President Bush remains mired in a number of political challenges, including the war in Iraq where violence continues unabated, mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and a potential confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. His approval ratings are at their lowest ever. The agreement with North Korea in September gave the Bush Administration a much needed reprieve from a string of failures and setbacks. It remains to be seen if this accord will stand the test of time. The failure of the latest round of negotiations gave an indication of the long and tortuous road to implementing the broad and vaguely worded September agreement. Unless the five members of the pact take on North Korea as a united front, one should not be too optimistic of North Korea undertaking disarmament voluntarily.

[The writer is with the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College, London. The views expressed here are his own.]