The Magazine

No New Deals with North Korea

ADVANCE COPY from the January 20, 2003 issue: They never work.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By HENRY SOKOLSKI and VICTOR GILINSKY
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WITH NORTH KOREA'S announcement Friday that it is withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Pyongyang's nuclear defiance is no longer just an American or Korean problem. It is a world problem. It requires an international rejoinder, one that treats Pyongyang as a violator--not of any deal reached with Seoul or Washington, but of the NPT. This might not block Pyongyang from making more bombs, but anything less risks unraveling such restraints as remain on other would-be bomb-makers.

Our choices are much starker than most diplomats suggest. We can face the reality that Pyongyang is a nuclear violator and treat it as such. Or we can engage in another round of self-delusion, in the face of nearly two decades' experience, hoping that a U.S.-brokered deal will finally get Pyongyang to surrender its nuclear weapons capabilities. The latter course will signal to proliferators that they have nothing to worry about from the world at large once they get a nuclear weapon. All of them are watching how we handle this.

Unfortunately, most Asia hands see matters differently. Many of those who criticized the United States for not letting the United Nations handle Saddam Hussein insist the United States should come to an accommodation directly with Kim Jong Il. In this, they side with Pyongyang, which wants the United States to accept it as a legitimate nuclear state. That is the meaning of its withdrawal from the NPT and its demand for a "non-aggression pact." In making this plea, Pyongyang gives no hint of being willing to surrender its nuclear weapons (it regards them as vital to its survival), only to refrain from brandishing them. Pyongyang knows that if it can get the United States to formally renounce its "hostile intent" and accept a nuclear standoff as a legitimate state of affairs, no other country is likely to protest the North's violation of any international agreement. The door to foreign aid would then reopen, and the grim, militaristic regime once again would get a new lease on life.

Pyongyang can smell the weakness of South Korea and Japan, which want to "mediate" direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang to "resolve" North Korea's plutonium and uranium bomb-making projects. That suits Pyongyang, which knows that verifying the elimination of its covert uranium program is an impossible task, and that a negotiating partner anxious to reach an agreement will not press too hard. Pyongyang might give up something for suitable rewards, only to continue building bombs covertly. In any case, it will not permit effective inspections or searches.

Another suggestion is to return to the status quo ante--a favorite of Russia, China, and South Korea. This would mean no penalty for repeated violation of agreements. Construction would continue of the two large power reactors we promised North Korea under the 1994 Agreed Framework. After a year's operation, each reactor could generate 50 or more bombs' worth of weapons-grade plutonium. Offering to complete these reactors might be a quick way to restart negotiations, but it's a crazy way to respond to a serial violator of the NPT.

Sadly, we have been down this road before. As far back as 1985, when Washington first learned of Pyongyang's construction of a military production reactor, the United States worked with Russia to get Pyongyang to join the NPT. As an inducement, Moscow promised to sell North Korea three light water reactors. Pyongyang had to reach a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by 1987. It didn't until 1992. Then, to fill the gap, Washington helped arrange a North-South agreement to forbid either Korean nation from having nuclear weapons or plants to separate plutonium or enrich uranium. To sweeten the pot, the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from Korea. But for Pyongyang the agreement was just a piece of paper: It secretly proceeded to reprocess enough material to make one or more weapons. When the IAEA, after its first inspection in 1992, announced that Pyongyang might have covertly separated plutonium in violation of the NPT, Pyongyang threatened to withdraw from the treaty.