Why North Korea might be ready for a deal

Posted in Other | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Paul B. Stares and Banning Gar| Source: International Herald Tribune

Nuclear standoff

BEIJING - When negotiations resume here Wednesday to try to resolve the long-simmering crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, few expect much, if any progress. The obstacles to a mutually acceptable agreement appear simply too great. Yet recent events beyond the Korean Peninsula provide reasons to think otherwise.

The central challenge of the talks is to find a way out of a circular argument: North Korea won't dismantle its "nuclear deterrent" until the United States guarantees its security, something the United States won't do until North Korea agrees to disarm in a "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" manner.

The deep distrust between the two main protagonists makes this challenge all the more daunting. North Korea is considered inherently treacherous by the United States for having violated an earlier commitment to forgo nuclear weapons - the 1994 Agreed Framework - by covertly developing a program based on the use of uranium-enrichment technology. So only the most ironclad agreement, one that accounts for all of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, will satisfy Washington.

Likewise, North Korea believes that the United States did not keep its side of the 1994 bargain to provide it with civil nuclear reactors. Since North Korea was branded part of the "axis of evil" by President George W. Bush, and having seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, remains highly suspicious that America's ultimate intention is to engineer regime change through a combination of economic strangulation and military coercion. So only the most binding U.S. assurances to the contrary are likely to satisfy Pyongyang.

Each side's suspicions of the other can probably never be entirely eliminated. The key question is whether they can be reduced to a level that would allow them to reach a mutually acceptable agreement - one that essentially trades regime survival for nuclear disarmament. It is here that recent developments elsewhere could help.

The first is the confirmation that a clandestine network orchestrated by Pakistan's leading nuclear weapons scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, supplied North Korea with uranium-enrichment technology. This revelation will help the United States garner support from the other parties to the talks - China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - at a time when skepticism about U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is high. More importantly, detailed information on the extent and nature of the transfers, which Pakistan should be pressed to supply, could prove crucial in verifiably dismantling the entire North Korean nuclear weapons effort.

The second development is Libya's decision to give up its weapons of mass destruction and allow international inspectors free reign to expurgate them. This is of immense relevance for the negotiations with North Korea, though not for the reasons most commonly cited. While Libya's dramatic change undoubtedly sets a powerful example and further increases the pressure on North Korea to do the same, it is the response of the United States and others in moving quickly to relax economic sanctions and rehabilitate Libya that promises to have the biggest impact. That this is happening without regime change in Tripoli will not have escaped the attention of Kim Jong Il.

Both developments provide a new context for the six-party talks in Beijing to move forward. Clearly, the details of a possible deal still have to be worked out, something that promises to be a complex, time-consuming task. Yet here again an earlier agreement reached far from Korea provides a potentially useful precedent.

In 1994, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus agreed to give up - completely, verifiably and irreversibly - the nuclear weapons they had inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed, in return for multilateral security guarantees from the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France. What is less known is that these assurances also contained commitments by the great powers "to refrain from economic coercion," something that if also offered to North Korea should provide an additional incentive for it to finally come in from the cold.

Paul B. Stares is director of research and studies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Banning Garrett is director of Asia programs at the Atlantic Council of the United States.