Fri, 19 Aug 1994

The Koreans have yet to reach settlement

The Jakarta Post Asia correspondent Harvey Stockwin analyses and comments on the initial agreement attained by North Korea and the United States after their third round of high-level talks in Geneva last week.

HONG KONG (JP): In the end it was neither a joint communique nor a joint statement. It was not even, as some North Korean diplomats had earlier hinted, a joint declaration.

When the first substantive agreement between the United States and North Korea, since the Korean Armistice was signed in July 1953, finally emerged in the wee hours of Saturday Aug. 13 in Geneva, it was in an even lowlier form of diplomatic documentation - merely an "agreed statement". There was no signing ceremony by the two chief negotiators. The agreed statement was just issued.

On Friday Aug. 12 there had been much last minute dilly- dallying by the North Koreans, to the extent that, at times, it seemed possible that no agreement was going to come forth.

But, interestingly, when the "agreed statement" finally emerged, the North Koreans stressed that it was a "weighty and significant document". It sounded very much as if the new authorities in North Korea felt the need to justify any deal made with the nation which Pyongyang has long portrayed as its only enemy.

Given the size and complexity of the problems posed by the need for peace on the Korean peninsula, it was hardly weighty. The "agreed statement" was long on understandings, short on specifics. It may herald diminished tension between the two Koreas. Equally it could mean that those tensions will heighten once again, whenever the North Koreans find it expedient to do so.

First and last, the "agreed statement" failed to deal with what the Americans have been asserting is the most immediate problem in need of solution. Some 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods recently removed from the North Korean's reactor at Yongbyon are steadily corroding in cooling ponds, where they can be observed but not controlled by two inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The rods were only referred to indirectly in the "agreed statement," in a long paragraph dealing with issues raised but not solved which referred to the need for the "safe storage and disposition of spent fuel".

According to the Americans, this corrosion could reach dangerous levels capable of releasing radioactivity by the end of this month or early September. The North Koreans could then reprocess the rods, thereby gaining enough plutonium for four or five atomic bombs.

Under the "agreed statement," the North Koreans will forego such reprocessing, provided that the U.S. keeps its promises.

But that does not mean that the North Koreans agree to the most obvious solution, removing the rods to another country -- China has been cited as the most likely destination -- thereby keeping that plutonium out of their hands. The North Koreans agreed not to reprocess the rods, but they refused to let them go, suggesting that, if necessary, the rods can be stored in concrete.

There is no word in the "agreed statement" about the only other solution which has been mentioned, that the water in the cooling ponds should be chemically treated in order to slow down the corrosion process.

The North Korean chief negotiator Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju, asked about the safety of the rods, said that this matter "would be examined by working-level meetings which will begin over the next month in the U.S. and North Korea before the next round of talks".

The inescapable conclusion therefore is that either the Americans have been exaggerating the speed at which the spent fuel rods will corrode and emit radioactivity - or else that the negotiation has failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion on a critical issue of nuclear safety.

Meanwhile, not to put too fine a point on it, the centerpiece of the "agreed statement" is, as expected, a big fat bribe, which the U.S. promises to arrange for North Korea, even though it hopes that others (such as Japan and South Korea) will provide the cash.

The North Koreans agree to replace their graphite-moderated nuclear reactors with light-water reactors (LWRs) having a 2,000 MW capacity, while the "USA is prepared to make arrangements for the provision of LWRs, and to make arrangements for interim energy alternatives" to the graphite reactors.

What this last pledge means, in practice, is that the U.S. will arrange for supplies of oil or some other energy source, even though, according to what the U.S. has previously said, the two graphite reactors now being built in North Korea are not linked to the North Korean electricity grid.

In other words, one of the clues to the North Korean nuclear weapons program was the fact that one 50 MW and one 200 MW graphite-moderated reactors were being built - but with no visible cables running from the reactors to the power system.

Presumably either these past assertions by the U.S. have now been proven to be false - or else the Americans have swallowed their satellite-acquired knowledge in order to make a gain.

The gain is, of course, that while the graphite-moderated reactors produce plutonium, the LWRs are far less able to do so, and therefore of much less use to a nuclear weapon's program.

Needless to say, this aspect of the agreement would be far more noteworthy if the North Koreans had agreed to surrender those 8,000 plutonium-rich fuel rods.

For the rest, the agreed statement is tentative rather than definitive. North Korea and the U.S. "are prepared to establish diplomatic representation" in each other's capitals, and to remove trade barriers, as a move towards normalization of political and economic relations.

Since mutual recognition is not even mentioned, this presumably means that the first step will be to set up liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington.

Given that the "agreed statement" multiplies the number of topics on which North Korea and the U.S. have to negotiate with each other, the question arises as why they did not agree to liaison offices straight away, rather than at some vague point in the future.

All told the "agreed statement" is far from being a substantive breakthrough. At best, it is a first tentative step down what is likely to be a long and rocky road. The one clear-cut specific is that high-level U.S.-North Korean negotiations will resume on Sept. 23, with expert-level discussions probably held between then and now.

So what does this all mean? In a long-term perspective, perhaps the best thing that can be said about the North Korean- U.S. "agreed statement" is that it marks a first uncertain step away from the previously impenetrable isolation that has been the background to Pyongyang's often rogue-like behavior.

There is no way of knowing whether this step has been taken as a result of a conscious directive from the new Great Leader Kim Jong-il, or because a slightly more open-minded section of the North Korean political elite is slowly taking charge, and using Kim as a figure-head.

Whatever the cause, the "agreed statement" makes it possible to believe that North Korea's hunger to acquire stocks of plutonium, a key ingredient for atomic bombs, may be about to diminish; that the day may not be far off when all Western nations have embassies in Pyongyang; and that North Korea is about to become more intent upon finding a way to avoid collapsing - rather than collapsing into a void.

That said, and the "agreed statement", plus the events which led to it, suggest a damaging and disconcerting conclusion: nuclear blackmail pays.

Fifteen months ago North Korea threatened to leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demanded to inspect some suspect sites.

Now North Korea is offered all manner of blandishments to stay within the NNPT, and promises to do so. But it is still refusing to allow those special inspections. It is still refusing to accept the discipline that treaty membership imposes. It is still refusing to allow IAEA inspectors to seek the true history of North Korea's nuclear weapons program (NWP). There is nothing in the "agreed statement" which assures us that Pyongyang will now accept that the NNPT is a set course meal which all nations must eat, and not an a la carte menu from which one can pick and choose.

That is not all. North Korea can now look forward to receiving one or two light-water reactors (LWR) - plus free interim energy supplies once its graphite reactors are closed - as a reward for giving up its assumed NWP.

Assuredly, other small but feisty nations can be forgiven if they now assume that nuclear intransigence has its own reward. Additionally, when the United States quite rightly sought to impose sanctions in response to Pyongyang's willful ways, North Korea threatened war - and won further negotiations in exchange.

The Americans are not solely to blame for setting this sorry example. China was positively opposed to sanctions even though, ostensibly, it did not favor a nuclear Korea. Japan and influential sections of the South Korean elite did not give the Americans the support which Washington required, and probably deserved. East Asia, in short, quailed before North Korea's bluff and blackmail.

So there is no knowing where these latest developments may lead. North Korea may yet manage to keep the one or two nuclear devices it is supposed to possess even as it acquires LWR for free. Maybe a little appeasement is a valid approach, as the U.S. tries to bring the Kim dynasty face-to-face with the real world.

But the fear must be that Pyongyang will start to reprocess those 8,000 plutonium-rich spent fuel rods whenever it suits its interest to do so, or again threaten war whenever the real world finds it necessary to apply pressure. Having got away with too much, it may seek to get away with more. Rogue nations always behave in this way.

So one hard conclusion presents itself. In the harsh and unrelenting world of power politics - of which North Korea is an active member - there is no choice other than to be tough and tenacious. In relation to North Korea and its NWP, the United States, aided and abetted by China and Japan, has been neither.