Thu, 10 Jul 2003

KEDO works magic on nuke issues

Yoichi Funabashi, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

Setting aside the issue of whether to continue building nuclear reactors in North Korea, the framework of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) should be maintained.

Bureau chief-level diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan met in Washington on July 2-3. It was important to establish a common policy among the three countries in dealing with North Korea.

When the leaders of the three countries met separately in U.S.-South Korea and Japan-U.S. summits in May, they agreed to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat with "dialog and pressure." The agreement was more about their mental attitude and stance. Before Japan and South Korea can join the talks that the U.S. and China initiated with the North, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. must find common ground in their approach to making North Korea give up its nuclear program.

They must agree on the process and content of a plan to make that happen. The Washington meeting was the first step in drafting that plan. Although the three agreed on the "dialog and pressure" approach, the U.S. has shown little interest in "dialog." It has refused to hold bilateral talks with North Korea and is bent on taking the offensive to apply "pressure." Meanwhile, South Korea has promised the U.S. it will take "additional measures" to apply "pressure" at the U.S.-South Korea summit, but has yet to deliver. Apparently, it wants to continue the "sunshine policy" advocated by former president Kim Dae Jung.

Japan began to apply economic pressure in the form of stronger controls on illegal remittances to North Korea. However, this pressure is being applied partly to prevent the United Nations from invoking economic sanctions. Japan fears that if the U.S. applies too much "pressure," it could drive North Korea into a corner and cause it to react violently. It looks like Japan is wavering between "pressure" and "dialog" and between the U.S. and South Korea.

The differences in the three countries' approaches toward North Korea are beginning to show more clearly over their policy concerning the KEDO.

KEDO was established in line with the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Framework Agreement. It is a mechanism and an organization designed to replace North Korea's nuclear reprocessing program with two light-water nuclear reactors, thereby removing the nuclear threat.

Only with great difficulty did KEDO come into being. Even though it was the U.S.' idea, it only agreed to shoulder the responsibility of providing heavy oil to North Korea and demanded that South Korea and Japan each put up US$800 million and $200 million, respectively, to finance the construction. Initially, Japan and South Korea were strongly opposed. Japan feared another Chernobyl-like fallout. But KEDO took off before the concerned parties fully agreed on how to solve liability issues if an accident occurred.

However, after North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program came to light last fall, the U.S. stopped the supply of heavy oil, effectively treating KEDO as dead in the water. Although, according to a high-ranking U.S. official, the U.S. "has not yet reached an official decision whether to stop or abolish" the project, U.S. domestic opinion to stop the project is gaining momentum, on grounds that North Korea nullified the Framework Agreement and abolished the non-nuclear declaration between North and South Korea. Japan and South Korea are against stopping the construction project.

"Even if the U.S. is just hinting that the project might be canceled, it could have a negative effect on the safety of local workers at KEDO," a senior Japanese government official said.

This would "only encourage North Korean hard-liners," Jeong Se-Hyun, South Korean minister of unification, told me.

Since both countries have invested so heavily in the project, they cannot ignore the pressure from related industries to keep it going. But it does not follow that we should continue supplying nuclear reactor parts to North Korea, which has been secretly developing nuclear weapons with enriched uranium.

We are facing a serious dilemma.

North Korea is like a stubborn turtle that refuses to come out of its shell if there is anything that upsets it. During the U.S.-China-North Korea talks in Beijing in April, North Korea got angry because China did not lay the groundwork for U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks. North Korea seemingly turned a deaf ear to China's invitation for the next trilateral meeting.

We should study KEDO's effectiveness in bringing the situation under control. KEDO is one of the few multilateral forums in which North Korea continues to stay politically involved. The U.S. has no choice but to keep talking with North Korea even if it has feigned to be deceived. The longer the discord lasts, the harder it will be to overcome.

No matter what agreement is reached with North Korea to have it abandon its nuclear weapons program, the international community has no choice but to promise it a secure energy supply. In doing so, a multilateral framework like KEDO is needed.

Once again, we must conjure up a diplomatic magic trick.