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The World : The North Korean Nuclear Deal: Mistrust--and Verify

October 23, 1994|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, is a former State Department official

WASHINGTON — Four months ago, North Korea's nuclear ambitions set the country on a direct course for confrontation with the United States. Today, if all goes according to plan, the accord reached last week between Washington and Pyongyang may well be a breakthrough that, as President Bill Clinton said, will help achieve "an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula." But the roller-coaster history of dealings with Pyongyang, coupled with its reluctance to pursue reconciliation with South Korea, suggest another possibility: Charlie Brown (the United States), again persuaded by Lucy (North Korea) that she will hold the football upright so he may kick off, learns yet again that Lucy is all too eager to pull the football away at the last second.

The accord, fleshed out with a secret side note, is a framework of phased-in steps for freezing and eventually rolling back North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. It also contains a package of economic, political and security benefits that the United States and its allies would give North Korea in exchange for ending its quest to build bombs. As with most such agreements, however, the devil is in the details, and some of them are disconcertingly vague.

Specifically, the United States would arrange for an international consortium, largely paid for by South Korea and Japan, to replace North Korea's plutonium-producing graphite reactors with more proliferation-resistant light-water reactors, at a cost of about $4 billion. In addition, Washington would take the lead in meeting North Korea's oil needs during the 6- to 10-year interval required to install the new reactors; lift its trade embargo against Pyongyang; open a liaison office in the North Korean capital as a first step toward full diplomatic relations, and provide assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.

For its part, North Korea would agree to a verifiable freeze, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and fulfill its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. It would not restart its 5-megawatt reactor, from which it pulled fuel rods last May. (The rods, which, if reprocessed, could produce several bombs worth of plutonium, sit in cooling ponds under the IAEA's gaze.) It would seal and no longer operate its reprocessing facility, where it actually manufactures plutonium. Finally, Pyongyang will stop construction on 50- and 200-megawatt graphite reactors, which, if completed, could produce enough plutonium to make a dozen bombs a year.

Enter the devil: What about North Korea's nuclear past? The train of events producing the nuclear crisis began in late 1992, when an IAEA lab analysis revealed that North Korea had done more reprocessing--hence, acquired more plutonium--than it had declared. U.S. intelligence agencies had reportedly provided satellite photos of two hidden nuclear-waste sites, where reprocessing could take place. It was the agency's demand to enter these sites that moved North Korea to threaten withdrawal from the non-proliferation regime.

In last week's agreement, Pyongyang promised to allow the IAEA to do whatever is necessary to uncover the true history of its weapons program--but not for another five years or more. Similarly, the near-term fate of the fuel rods remains clouded. It is this large gap in implementation that has spawned some legitimate criticism of, and some partisan sniping at, the accord.

There is certainly some cause for concern. But despite its flaws, the agreement, on balance, is defensible. It offers a step-by-step program for building good faith that, if implemented, would result in a major achievement--turning off and ultimately dismantling North Korea's weapons program before it attains the capability to produce dozens of nuclear devices. In fact, by mothballing its reprocessing facility, which is permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the agreement is more stringent than IAEA norms.

To be sure, it is irritating that North Korea, caught lying and cheating, is now being rewarded. But the non-proliferation system is a discriminatory and imperfect one. And while the North Korean case may encourage potential bomb builders like Iran to play a similar game, the circumstances on the heavily armed Korean Peninsula are so dangerous and unique that bending the rules there may not prove as costly as some fear. After all, although the IAEA has the legal authority to conduct special inspections, it is not standard procedure. Indeed, apart from Iraq, which lost a war, it has never really done so.

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