Fissures Appear in North Korean Nuclear Agreement

By Patrick Goodenough | September 20, 2005 | 8:16pm EDT

( - After two years of talks, North Korea supposedly agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for incentives, but just hours after the deal was struck it became evident that Kim Jong-il's regime and Washington differ over how the agreement should work.

Under the agreement, the North would renounce all nuclear weapons and programs, and return "at an early date" to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, including allowing inspectors back into the country to verify compliance.

In return, Pyongyang would receive economic and energy aid -- including electricity from South Korea -- along with security assurances and steps to normalize diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan.

The agreement hammered out at "six-party" talks in Beijing is an outline of broad principles rather than a timetable for meeting obligations.

Analysts had warned that "the devil is in the details," and it quickly became clear which detail was poised to jeopardize efforts to de-nuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Throughout the latest round of the talks, North Korea's insistence on having a civilian nuclear energy program built around light-water reactors (LWRs) held up agreement. The U.S. and other parties opposed the demand.

The deal signed in the Chinese capital Monday managed to bridge the gulf through the use of wording that deferred discussion on the issue of providing North Korea with a LWR until "an appropriate time."

Exactly when it will be "appropriate," however, was left unstated.

In the view of the U.S., the appropriate time will only have been reached once North Korea has met specific obligations.

In a statement clarifying the American position and issued after the agreement was signed, U.S. negotiator Chris Hill set down the conditions as follows:

-- North Korea must have "promptly eliminated all nuclear weapons and all nuclear programs, and this has been verified to the satisfaction of all parties by credible international means, including the IAEA."

-- North Korea must have "come into full compliance with the NPT and IAEA safeguards, and [have] demonstrated a sustained commitment to cooperation and transparency and [have] ceased proliferating nuclear technology."

Once those conditions had been met, Hill said, then the U.S. would support a discussion on civilian nuclear energy, such as the provision of an LWR.

But that's not how Pyongyang sees the agreement playing out.

"Should the U.S. again insist on the DPRK's dismantlement of nuclear weapons before the provision of LWRs, there will be no change in the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S. and its consequences will be very serious and complicated," North Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

It said the U.S. would have to provide LWRs "as soon as possible" to prove it recognized North Korea's right to peaceful civilian nuclear energy.

DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

Reacting to the latest North Korean statement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in New York that "this is not the agreement that they signed," while Japan's foreign minister called it "unacceptable."

'Too soon to declare victory'

Because of Pyongyang's unpredictability and its history of breaking agreements, the early signs of a fissure in the accord will come as no surprise.

While few would disagree with the Chinese negotiator that the agreement was the most significant development in two years of talks, much of the reaction to news of the deal has been cautious, if not skeptical.

"A wonderful step forward," said President Bush of the pledge to disarm, before adding: "But now we've got to verify whether or not that happens."

Japan's chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the agreement was a positive step, adding that nations would have to "keep a close eye" on North Korea as the process unfolded.

Australian Prime Minister also called the development positive, but noted that "North Korea has broken agreements in the past and we must therefore be cautious."

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, said North Korea had apparently agreed to stop doing something it had already agreed not to do -- in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement -- "and will receive additional benefits for making its new promise."

"Only time will tell whether this latest agreement will be the first step toward Washington's goal of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear program or simply the latest instance in Pyongyang's long record of making commitments to remain non-nuclear only to violate those commitments whenever it becomes convenient."

Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum noted that until just days ago, failure in the talks looked likely.

"That they have not failed is significant," he said Tuesday. "But this only lays out the groundwork; the devil will be in the details."

"It is too soon to declare victory," Cossa added, predicting "months of hard negotiating" ahead.

Apart from the LWR issue, Cossa identified another "detail" that could cause problems: The agreement refers to Pyongyang abandoning "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." But North Korea has long denied that it has a uranium-based weapons program; the U.S. insists it does.

"Agreeing that 'all' programs will be included is only significant if there is agreement on what constitutes 'all,' " Cossa said.

Security uncertainties

In the area of security guarantees, the statement says the U.S. "has no intention to attack or invade" North Korea.

Cossa pointed out, that the document said nothing about the behavior of other parties.

"If North Korea employs military force against South Korea or Japan -- two U.S. treaty allies -- is Washington prohibited from responding?"

And if the U.S. stopped a North Korean ship suspected of smuggling nuclear weapons or other illicit cargo, would that constitute an "attack," he wondered.

The U.S. in 2003 launched the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a plan that aims to prevent rogue states like North Korea from transferring weapons of mass destruction or related material, by stopping and searching suspect vessels.

The PSI has since held a series of maritime stop-and-search exercises around the world, usually drawing complaints from Pyongyang about "undisguised hostile acts."

In his clarifying statement, Hill stressed that the U.S. "will take concrete actions necessary to protect ourselves and our allies against any illicit and proliferation activities on the part of the DPRK."

He also stated that while the U.S. wanted to normalize relations with North Korea, it viewed as a necessary part of that process future discussions on important issues including human rights abuses, ballistic missile programs and terrorism.

The six parties -- the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- are due to meet for a next round of talks in early November.

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