One Cheer for North Korea Arms Deal
One Cheer for North Korea Arms Deal
February 15, 2007
The new agreement to begin elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities feels a lot like finally finding the car keys: It's great to at last get going, but the unneeded anxiety and lost time still grate. The deal is a welcome start, but in a wider sense its terms merely consummate the tragic handling of North Korea's nuclear ambitions over the past four years.
The terms reached at the current round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing would shut down a research reactor at the Yongbyon site that produces the plutonium North Korea uses for its weapons program. In exchange, North Korea would receive immediate shipments of fuel oil to prop up its energy-strapped economy.
Eventually North Korea would verifiably dismantle all nuclear weapons capabilities, receiving further energy aid, release from economic sanctions and normalization of political relations.
But the deal doesn't replace the 1994 Agreed Framework, which mapped a never-completed course to complete denuclearization of North Korea, then thought to have one or two untested devices.
When that arrangement collapsed at the end of 2002, it also allowed North Korea to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and generate enough plutonium for six to 10 more nuclear weapons. The new deal leaves those developments to future – and undoubtedly difficult –negotiations. So we're not even yet back to where we were in 2002.
Since then, more has been lost than gained.
The previous agreement collapsed, in part, over U.S. accusations that North Korea had a second nuclear program based on uranium enrichment that would produce usable fissile material in a few years.
The Bush administration insisted elimination of this program was a prerequisite to new negotiations. Today, those intelligence reports have lost their lustre – sound familiar? – and this issue, too, awaits future negotiations.
The new deal puts in motion the September 2005 "Statement of Principles," an equally heralded achievement.
But U.S. actions to freeze overseas assets linked to North Korean illicit activities helped obstruct its implementation. The latest deal emerged only after the U.S. expressed willingness to relax the financial restraints. Meanwhile, North Korea attempted a long-range missile test and conducted its nuclear test.
Indeed, the emergence of a new deal only a few months after the nuclear test seems to validate North Korea's strategy to provoke the U.S. into compromise.
North Korea's first long-range missile test in 1998 led to a near agreement for elimination of its missile program and then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright's visit to Pyongyang in 2000. The strategy appears to have worked even more quickly this time. Does all this mean that a new deal is capitulation?
Hard-line Bush administration factions have long preferred to squeeze North Korea with containment and sanctions until its ruling regime capitulates or collapses.
But that approach led to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in the first place, and by alienating China and South Korea – they oppose coerced regime change in Pyongyang – it then allowed North Korea to avoid serious negotiation and advance its nuclear weapons program.
China and South Korea's own reactions to North Korea's recent belligerence may have done more to bring the north back to the table than U.S. pressure.
Herein resides the tragedy.
Washington's former UN ambassador John Bolton is nearly right to claim this deal could have been done six years ago. Actually, a better one was already in place. It wasn't perfect. But the Bush administration's confrontational alternative, more ideological and reflexive then strategic or forward looking, was worse.
Kim Jong-il may have been, for the first year or two, intimidated by President George W. Bush's bellicosity. But by 2003, with U.S. attentions and resources committed to Iraq, Pyongyang was increasingly prepared to call Washington's bluff.
Today, it's clearer than ever that the only route to a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula lies down the road of engagement and negotiation.
Misbegotten dalliances with cowboy confrontation have simply made that road longer and rougher: No state has ever given up a publicly tested nuclear weapons capability.
Canada's stakes are significant.
North Korea's nuclear ambitions are a critical challenge to the global non-proliferation regime and help evoke U.S. postures on terrorism, missile defence and military pre-emption.
The humanitarian crisis in North Korea should be at the top of anyone's human rights and development agendas. Opportunity is also considerable: Canada can utilize unique relationships with both North Korea and the U.S. to enhance the dialogues that make progress at the Six-Party Talks possible.
The current accord renews North Korea's commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons capabilities and indicates that the existing Six-Party Talks process still has legs.
We've taken a first step down the long road. Canada can help the process stay on track – and reach the destination in time.
Wade L. Huntley is director of the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia.