Monday, February 19, 2007

What Took So Long?

What Took So Long?

The new nuclear agreement with North Korea represents a total capitulation by the George W Bush administration. No, not to Kim Jong-il – worse, to Bill Clinton. If there is any fundamental difference between this deal and the 1994 Agreed Framework accord negotiated under Clinton, it is hard to see.

Pyongyang has agreed to freeze – that word again – and eventually dismantle its nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon and nuclear facilities in other parts of the country in return for tons of heavy oil to run its power plants. They will be provided by five countries except Japan which still nurses grievances about abducted citizens..

Down the line are promises of more to come, including the possibility of complete nuclear disarmament in return for a peace treaty, the North’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and ultimately formal recognition and diplomatic relations.

No mention was been made about providing any light-water rectors, or more accurately, restarting work on the units at Kumho on the coast, which were about 30% completed when the accord was broken. Presumably, this would have been too much of a climb down for the Bush administration, since the reactors have always been a red-flag for Republicans.

Never mind that the cost is being borne by South Korea and Japan, which have lost tens of millions of dollars on this project since 2003. Just last week Pyongyang rejected Japan and South Korea’s demand for $1.9 billion in compensation for money they have sunk into the project. No big surprise.

The North is eventually to provide details about and then dismantle its “nuclear program.” The purposely vague term would presumably cover any efforts at enriching uranium, which is not specifically mentioned in the agreement reached in Beijing.

I take this to be a tacit admission that Washington accepts Pyongyang’s assertion that it has no such program. It would be difficult for Washington to concede this explicitly since the existence of such a program was the reason – the pretext, if you will – for the US to brand the North a cheater and cut off oil shipments in 2002.

That prompted North Korea to kick out international inspectors, restart the Yongbyon plant and reprocess the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been waiting shipment out of the country, obtaining enough Plutonium-239 to make perhaps six to eight atomic bombs.

The US maintains that the North admitted to the program back then; Pyongyang says its representative was misunderstood. In the five years since Washington publicly accused them of cheating there has been no evidence in public about the existence of such a program.
One reads constantly about Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The sites are well-known and bracketed. By contrast hardly a word has been mentioned publicly in five years about the North’s purported program or where any enrichment facility might be located.

The best part of the new agreement is that it should halt future production of plutonium for bombs. The weakness is that it doe not immediately address the bombs that North Korea has already fashioned from the spent fuel at Yongbyon.

The Bush administration’s move to break the accord hugely complicated any future efforts to disarm North Korea. After all, the reactors and processing plants were well known and mapped. They could be monitored – on site by inspectors or through surveillance.

But how do you find 8-10 atomic bombs or the materials to make them in a country of 24 million people? Nobody is even sure how many bombs the North has fabricated. Suppose they turned over eight bombs and declared itself disarmed but kept two in reserve?

Perhaps the North’s promise to provided detailed information on its nuclear program will include the precise amount of plutonium recovered through various cycles. That might provide sufficient information to produce an accurate inventory of the North’s arsenal, which would be the first step toward any verifiable disarmament.

I must admit it is rather sweet to read about how all of the neo-conservatives, led by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, are sputtering and complaining about how the administration has betrayed its principles.

In its defense, the Bush administration points to the success of decision to negotiate on a multilateral basis through the six-party talks hosted by China. Yet this deal was essentially reached the old-fashion way, through bilateral talks between US representative Christopher Hill and North Korea’s Kim Kye-gwan in Berlin.

But it would however be a little too cynical to dismiss the usefulness of the six-party format out of hand. China, after all, has emerged as a much more important factor in regional and global affairs since 1994, the year the first accord was negotiated.

It is not clear how much Beijing helped in persuading the North to make concessions this time, but it certainly must have been valuable. And it doesn’t hurt to have the five other representatives to the talks on board to hold the North’s feet to the fire in the coming months.


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