Promise and Peril in North Korea Deal

This week’s six-party agreement on the principles for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is being greeted somewhat warily here, with most experts stressing that the accord marks only the beginning of what is likely to be a protracted negotiating process that could take years, rather than months, to achieve.

The deal reached by the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, the U.S., and China nonetheless sets out a comprehensive framework. If successfully implemented, it would not only defuse a three-year-old crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear intentions, but also ensure that nuclear weapons are effectively banned from one of the world’s most militarized hotspots and bolster the badly battered Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

"If North Korea returns to the treaty, it will bind every country in the world save India, Pakistan, and Israel," noted the New York Times, which praised U.S. President George W. Bush, who personally signed off on the deal, for having "rediscovered the safeguards and rewards of peaceful international diplomacy and this vital treaty in particular."

Still, the precise details of verification, inspection, and the sequencing of specific actions and rewards remain to be worked out in future rounds of talks, the first of which is now set for early November. The longer these details take to be worked out, the easier it will be for hardliners, who had resisted any engagement with North Korea, to attack the accord.

"This is a good statement of principles, but it does not and was never intended to solve all of the problems," according to Alan Romberg, a Korea specialist and former senior State Department official at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

"Nobody ever thought that the next steps would be easy," he told IPS. "In fact, everyone knew that these details will be very, very difficult to work out."

In a reflection of unhappiness by hawks within the Bush administration, notably Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, the accord is already being denounced by some as a sellout of the administration’s previous insistence that Pyongyang should receive no gains until it completely and verifiably dismantles all of its nuclear programs and surrenders the two or eight weapons that Washington believes it has already produced. The former includes a uranium enrichment program whose existence has been denied by North Korea.

"Wittingly or otherwise," wrote Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, "the U.S. negotiating team has executed an apparent cave-in – embracing precepts crucial to North Korean objectives but inimical to Washington’s own."

Eberstadt, along with administration hardliners, has promoted a policy of "regime change" in North Korea. He was particularly scornful of Washington’s agreement in the Sept. 19 "Joint Statement" issued from Beijing to discuss as part of the negotiation process the delivery of a light-water reactor to Pyongyang, a provision that recalls the 1994 "Agreed Framework" reached between the North and the administration of former President Bill Clinton.

This provision was deemed so politically sensitive that the State Department and its top negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, sent it all the way up to Bush for final approval before the agreement was announced by Beijing, which has chaired the talks.

"The [world] has now witnessed a new administration in Washington – purportedly cognizant of all the earlier U.S. mistakes – make those mistakes all over again," Eberstadt wrote.

The agreement provides that North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons and programs, return "at an early date" to the NPT, from which it abruptly withdrew three years ago, and submit to inspections and safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In exchange, South Korea and the United States will pledge not to deploy nuclear weapons on the peninsula, and Washington will affirm that it has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea. In addition, both Pyongyang and Washington pledge to respect each other’s sovereignty and work to establish normal relations.

China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. agreed to provide North Korea with energy assistance, including electricity from the South. In addition, all six nations agreed to discuss "at an appropriate time" the construction in North Korea of a light-water nuclear reactor (LWR).

This last point was particularly contentious, as indicated by the issuance by each party of a unilateral statement of its interpretation. In an indication of many of the challenges to come, the U.S. statement declared it would oppose the provision of a LWR to Pyongyang until the North had complied with all of its obligations, prompting a statement by North Korea’s foreign ministry that it would not return to the NPT until the U.S. agrees to provide the LWR.

While Pyongyang’s statement was seized on by hawks here as evidence that North Korea was not acting in good faith, Hill vowed not to get "hung up on" these kinds of details at this point in the process.

"The challenge that Chris Hill and the State Department, as well as the North Koreans themselves, face is how to sell the agreement to their domestic audiences," said Karin Lee, a Korea specialist at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a lobby group here. "These kinds of statements can be seen as directed as much as for the home audience as for the opposing side."

Hill’s reaction was particularly welcome to Lee, who stressed that if the parties focus on their disagreements, as opposed to building on areas of potential agreement, such as how verification and monitoring of North Korea’s compliance will be carried out, the accord could quickly become undone.

"If the sequencing about the LWR becomes the key topic in November, then I would lose hope in the process," she said.

"Hill and the State Department are interested in results, not in playing ‘gotcha’ with the North Koreans," said Romberg, who welcomed their success in getting an agreement. "The first thing you have to do is to test [the North Koreans] in a serious way with a serious negotiation, and that has been lacking until recently."

"What Hill wanted to do was to establish agreement on the end state – a denuclearized Korean peninsula and new sets of relationships between the other five parties. Having done that, you now go back to the terribly difficult task of how you get there," he said.

"Anybody who criticizes it misses the point that this is a very important and necessary – although not sufficient – first step, although it does not guarantee that you’ll have success at the end of the day."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.