Security Dilemma: Don't Let North Korea Do It Again
United States President Bill Clinton may go to North Korea in an effort to seal a deal on controlling that country's missile program. The North has been testing long-range military ballistic missiles, and selling them as well, to some of the world's most dangerous actors. Since the North says all it wants is a means to launch peaceful satellites and some income, the Clinton administration sees an opportunity. The idea is to induce the Pyongyang to give up its threatening military missile program in return for help in launching its satellites, and presumably something for lost income.
By all accounts, the Clinton administration seeks to pattern such an agreement on the 1994 "Agreed Framework" that sought to pull the teeth of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Under that agreement North Korea stopped operation and construction of its small indigenous nuclear reactors and related plutonium-extraction plant in return for the supply of two large U.S.-type power reactors. However, before heading down the same road with a missile agreement, the U.S. should consider the price paid for attempting such agreements.
There are four key questions: What happened to the dangerous military technology that was to be replaced? What are the risks in supplying the replacement "civilian" technology? How well is North Korea's behavior verified? And in the rush to an agreement, has the Clinton administration thought through the details?
There are answers on the nuclear side. North Korea has stopped operation and construction of the reactors and reprocessing plant, but has maintained them and has not taken any steps to dismantle them. In fact, the Agreed Framework allows them to keep the plants until the U.S. completes the second of two large nuclear power reactors -- which may be 10 years from now, or never. The North has taken full advantage of this and regularly threatens to restart plutonium production if the U.S. doesn't supply the promised American-type power reactors quickly enough.
These "replacement" reactors are 10 times larger than the total of what the North Koreans had operating and under construction. They could produce twice the amount of plutonium -- all of it usable for the making of bombs -- they would have been able to produce in their indigenous plants. These facts were evidently overlooked during the 1994 negotiations. (Also ignored at the time was that the new nuclear plants are so large in relation to the North's electric power grid that they make no sense, either in terms of economics or safety.)
Nuclear verification is done by the International Atomic Energy Agency. An essential provision of the Agreed Framework was that the North would come into compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This meant letting the IAEA check suspected illicit separation of plutonium to see how much material the North might have squirreled away. So far, the IAEA has gotten nowhere with North Korea. Nor has the IAEA been able to check whether North Korea has continued its covert weapons research, a matter not covered in the l994 nuclear agreement.
It appears that similar problems affect a possible deal on missiles. For example, the North is balking at including all the missiles and related technology regarded as dangerous. Any deal needs to include not only the long-range Taepo-Dong series of missiles aimed at the U.S., but also the No-Dong missiles that can reach Japan (or China), and the various SCUD missiles aimed against South Korea. Therefore, an agreement to halt the development and testing of only the Taepo-Dong would probably leave unresolved the particularly destabilizing sales of the No-Dong North Korea has made to Pakistan and the Middle East.
So far, the North Koreans have been vague not only about what range of missile they would be willing to abandon, but also what missiles they would be willing to destroy. What they are saying is that the details of any offer will only be revealed in a face-to-face with the outgoing President Clinton.
The provision of "civilian" satellite launch assistance to North Korea is also a much more subtle matter than it sounds. It turns out that because launch customers must meet rigorous conditions, they get to learn quite a bit about the rockets their satellites ride on. Such information would be valuable to North Korea's military missile designers. They would learn most about the one thing they have yet to master in their efforts to develop a missile to reach the U.S. -- how to develop an upper-rocket stage. Moreover, North Korea is apparently insisting that we help it launch satellites of its design. This would allow Pyongyang to have satellites launched that simulate military payloads. One can try to control such technology transfers, but such efforts (as with the monitoring of China's launch of U.S. satellites) have been disappointing.
As for the missile verification issue, it too is no easier than the nuclear one. The U.S. must be able to determine exactly how many missiles of each type North Korea has. Washington cannot take Pyongyang's word for any agreed upon missile destruction. The dismantling of the missile factories cannot be left for decades from now. And what about the thousands of North Korean missile engineers and technicians?
The Clinton administration is understandably anxious to tie a ribbon around what it sees as a successful enticement of North Korea away from a nuclear weapons and missile program. The North Koreans have in the past skillfully taken advantage of U.S. desires for a quick agreement. Washington should not be in any rush to let them do it again.