Progress toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula

When the six party talks[i] finally produced an agreement to reaffirm the common goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula , along with setting out specific measures to be taken toward that end, there were two primary reactions to the deal. Some welcomed it, saying it was far too long in coming and was a deal that could have been won already in 2002. Others disparaged it, saying it rewarded North Korea ‘s bad behavior.

It is certainly true that with the cooperation of the United States the current deal could have been reached much earlier. The basic elements of the deal go back, not only to 2002, but to 1994 and are really a slightly altered version of the 1994 Framework Agreement reached by the Clinton Administration. And what the deal actually rewards is not bad behavior but an end to bad behavior. This time the deal is linked specifically to behavior and refers to the principle of “action for action” – that is, neither side takes action on the basis of a declaration by the other, but each party acts on the basis of concrete action by the other.

That means in the next 60 days there will need to be verified evidence of action. North Korea, or the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea), must shut down production in the one declared facility it has that is capable of producing fissile materials and must allow it to be placed under the seal and verification of the International Atomic Energy Agency.[ii] That is really the main and essential requirement of Pyonyang. It is a clear and unambiguous action and it is intended to produce another pretty clear action, an initial shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

The February 13, 2007 agreement is partly new and mostly old because it is intended to implement the September 19, 2005 agreement, which in turn more or less updated the 1994 deal.[iii] As the BBC put it: “Prominent members of the US President George W. Bush’s administration make no secret of their contempt for [the Clinton deal, but] now, after years of confrontation, they have signed up to something that looks suspiciously similar – a nuclear freeze in return for economic and diplomatic incentives.”[iv]

A primary difference between 1994 and 2007 is that in 1994 it was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the DPRK, while in 2007 it is a six-party agreement, giving key neighbors, China, South Korea, and Japan, a stake in assuring success this time round.

Success is far from guaranteed. DPRK is required to produce “a list of all its nuclear programs” (Feb. 13/07) and that will prove a challenge. In 2002 the United States accused the DPRK of a clandestine uranium enrichment program. The DPRK at first seemed to admit such a program, but then denied it and has steadfastly denied it since. Washington has never presented public evidence to back up its accusations, which in turn have become increasingly vague over time. The DPRK is unlikely to list what it says does not exist, to which Washington and other skeptics are likely to reply that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Things could go on in that vain at some length. In the end, to build confidence that an enrichment program truly does not exist will require extensive with cooperation with IAEA inspectors. Public discussion of the matter now suggests that the North Koreans did try to acquire enrichment equipment, contrary to the provisions of the 1994 deal, but there is no evidence of the extent to which they were successful and Pyongyang continues to deny the program.

The Globe and Mail carried an op-ed by John O’Sullivan[v] of Washington’s Hudson Institute that typified the claim that the downfall of earlier deals was simple matter of North Korea ‘s cheating and that the new deal rewards bad behavior. In 2002, however, it was the Bush Administration that cut off the energy assistance element of the 1994 agreement amidst Washington ‘s aggressive accusations of another advanced but hidden weapons program (uranium enrichment). Kim Jong-il responded predictably, expelling the international inspectors and pulling out of the NPT.

O’Sullivan also reflected the views of other critics when he wrote that the 1994 Clinton Framework Agreement with North Korea is the reason Kim Jong-il now has “more nuclear weapons.” In fact, the Clinton deal shut down North Korea ‘s plutonium operation, and throughout the deal’s eight-year run not an ounce of weapons material was produced there. That all ended in 2002 with the Bush Administration’s dispute with Pyongyang. It was under the Bush Administration that Pyongyang resumed production of fissile material and successfully (at least partly so) weaponized it.

A number of elements of the agreement involve bilateral issues – between the DPRK and the United States and the DPRK and Japan. Others require unspecified levels of economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance to the DPRK.

The regime that Washington had labeled part of an Axis of Evil is now to enter into bilateral talks and normalized relations with the US: “The DPRK and the US will start bilateral talks aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations. The US will begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK.”

This welcome turnaround by Washington is seen by some as a deliberate decision to go easy on the DPRK and focus the heavy hand on Iran. On the other hand, the new approach to North Korea could also become a model for dealing with Iran – or would that be too much to expect.


[i] The six are, DPRK, ROK, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States .

[ii] The facility in question is the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and accompanying reprocessing facility. The six-party Joint Statement of February 13, 2007 says this facility will be “shut down and seal[ed] for the purpose of eventual abandonment.” The joint statement is available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2007/february/80479.htm.

[iii] See Ploughshares Briefing 06/6, Ernie Regehr, “Responding to the North Korean bomb” (October 2006).

[iv] Charles Scanlon, “The end of a long confrontation,” BBC News, Feb 13, 2007 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6357853.stm).

[v]”No question, this is a bad deal,” Feb. 21/07.

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