By Selig S. Harrison
Until recently, South Korea has been gently nudging the United States to make North Korea a reasonable offer in the nuclear negotiations, but has carefully avoided open conflict with the Bush Administration.
Now Seoul, together with Beijing, is beginning to push Washington harder. The South Korean proposal for a nuclear settlement unveiled on June 24 differs on two crucial issues with the American proposal made in Beijing. Seoul should put intensified public pressure on the United States to alter its position on these two key issues at the working group meeting this month and at the next round of six-party talks scheduled for late September.
The most important difference between the South Korean and U.S. proposals is that the South Korean plan does not require North Korea to admit it has a uranium enrichment program at the outset of negotiations. North Korea denies that it has such a program. Nevertheless, the U.S. plan calls for acknowledgement that the alleged program exists before negotiations on a projected denuclearization agreement can proceed. The agreement would commit Pyongyang in advance to specific procedures for dismantling uranium centrifuge facilities. By contrast, under the South Korean plan, North Korea would pledge the dismantlement of “all” nuclear facilities, without the need for specific acknowledgement of a uranium program, leaving the uranium issue to be resolved in the final stages of denuclearization after greater trust has been established between Pyongyang and Washington.
The other key difference between the South Korean and U.S. plans is that Seoul envisages the normalization of U.S. and Japanese relations with Pyongyang once denuclearization has been achieved. The American plan explicitly says that even after denuclearization under adequate inspection, normalization would come only after the resolution of differences over human rights, chemical and biological weapons, missile production and exports and “less provocative conventional force dispositions.” Yet it is the promise of normalization and of an end to a perceived U.S. threat to its survival that make a settlement attractive to North Korea.
The central issue that has emerged in the negotiations to date is whether to focus initially on what is, demonstrably, an already-existent plutonium threat or to address at the outset both known North Korean plutonium capabilities and a suspected uranium enrichment program.
Despite its denials that such a program exists, there is clear evidence that North Korea has attempted to import key components needed for uranium enrichment. However, there is no evidence at this stage to justify the conclusion that an advanced enrichment program already exists in North Korea. The intelligence agencies of the United States and its allies have revealed no evidence to support that conclusion and have not made any such evidence available to the U.S. Congress or to other states participating in the six-nation negotiations. China, which has been separately briefed by Pakistan and has its own information sources, has publicly expressed skepticism that an advanced program exists.
Recent revelations of the nuclear black market activities of the ousted director of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Dr. A.Q. Khan, have led to the widespread impression that Pakistan has supplied uranium enrichment technology to North Korea. However, the facts concerning the Pakistan-North Korea connection remain unclear. Dr. Khan has not discussed it publicly, and no foreign access to Dr. Khan has been permitted.
The evidence so far available does suggest the existence of a pilot or experimental enrichment program and strong North Korean interest in uranium enrichment technology. Whether an advanced enrichment program exists – and if so, how close it is to producing weapons-grade fissile material in significant quantities – would be difficult to determine without North Korean cooperation as part of an agreed denuclearization process with intrusive inspections.
The U.S. proposal in Beijing was an improvement over previous U.S. “stonewalling” tactics but does not provide a realistic basis for successful negotiations. The proposal fails to take into account the deep distrust existing between the United States and North Korea and thus the need for simultaneous steps in which the two sides, in tandem, each make concessions of sufficient importance to the other to reduce distrust and facilitate compromise.
In its present form, the proposal places the burden on North Korea to make major concessions first without a corresponding assurance of comparable concessions in return.
For example, it envisages a unilateral North Korean declaration, pledging complete denuclearization, that would set the stage for conclusion of a detailed agreement providing for the “supervised disabling, dismantling, and elimination of all nuclear programs,” including the suspected uranium enrichment program.
The proposal for a unilateral declaration places North Korea in the position of the defendant in a judicial proceeding, with the United States in the role of prosecutor. It reflects the U.S. view that Pyongyang has no right to develop nuclear weapons and has violated its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But North Korea, for its part, believes that it is entitled and compelled to develop a nuclear weapons capability, primarily to deter perceived efforts by a nuclear-armed United States to bring about “regime change” through preemptive military action or other means. To get North Korea to make a denuclearization pledge, the declaration should be more symmetrical, coupling such a pledge with a simultaneous pledge by the other powers concerned that affirms respect for North Korea’s sovereignty and explicitly rules out a military first strike.
An acceptable settlement with North Korea must eventually bring about all of the detailed denuclearization measures spelled out in the U.S. plan. However, given the existing level of distrust between Washington and Pyongyang, North Korea is unlikely to commit itself to these measures in advance. It must be induced to take them in a step-by-step fashion, with quid pro quos along the way. Moreover, in contrast to the precision and magnitude of the North Korean concessions detailed in the proposed agreement, the rewards offered in return would be minimal: an undefined provisional security assurance; “discussions” on long-term energy assistance, sanctions and removal from the terrorist list, with no hint of possible action; and short-term oil shipments of unspecified size, primarily from South Korea and other “non-U.S. parties.”
The fact that the United States would not join in the oil shipments signals to North Korea that a nuclear settlement would not in itself lead to normalized relations. North Korea is not likely to move toward complete denuclearization, in my view, unless the United States is prepared to match North Korean concessions with steps toward the normalization of political and economic relations and the conclusion of a tripartite peace treaty ending the Korean War (the United States, North Korea and South Korea).
Human rights, chemical and biological weapons, missiles and conventional arms control are all issues that should be on the negotiating agenda with North Korea. But progress on these issues should not be a precondition for normalization. On the contrary, they are more likely to be resolved in a climate of improved relations than in one dominated by mutual suspicion.
The U.S. proposal contrasted sharply with the more limited North Korean offer to freeze its plutonium program, made behind closed doors in the August, 2003, and May, 2004, six-party negotiations and revealed publicly in discussions during my visit to Pyongyang in April, 2004. Depending on what the United States is prepared to do in return, North Korea would permit the inspection necessary to determine how much plutonium has been reprocessed from the 8000 fuel rods removed from storage in December, 2002; the sequestering of this plutonium under international controls, and the shutdown of the Yongbyon reprocessing plant under international inspection. This would be the “first step” in a continuing process that would lead to complete denuclearization in stages, keyed to progress toward improved relations with the United States. The nature and extent of these subsequent stages have not been specified.
The U.S. proposal does not accept the concept of a freeze, calling as it does for the “disablement” of all nuclear weapons and weapons components – including the suspected uranium centrifuge facilities – during a three-month preparatory period that would lead directly into implementation of a comprehensive denuclearization agreement.
The South Korean plan is more realistic. It accepts the North Korean freeze offer but goes beyond it to stipulate that the freeze would only set the stage for negotiating a detailed agreement on dismantlement. The agreement would have to be implemented within an unspecified “short time frame.” This leaves more room for diplomacy than the three-month preparatory period for dismantlement specified in the U.S. proposal, during which existing North Korean nuclear weapons would be “disabled”. But even the South Korean proposal is not likely to produce a settlement unless the level of economic assistance goes far beyond the oil shipments and vague promises of additional energy aid so far offered.
What is needed is a dramatic step toward energy security for Pyongyang such as a gas pipeline from Sakhalin that would pass through the North enroute to the South and provide both royalties and gas supplies for fertilizer plants and power stations. President Roh should pursue this option actively in his meeting with President Putin of Russia next month if he wants to accelerate progress toward denuclearization.>