How Long Do We Live With Blackmail?
In this year's State of the Union address, in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's confirmation testimony and in other statements, the administration has reemphasized the importance of its 1994 nuclear deal with the North Koreans under which they quit their indigenous nuclear program in return for two modern U.S.-type nuclear power reactors. Unfortunately, the deal gradually has changed into something even less desirable than the questionable proposition that was negotiated in 1994. At a minimum, we should get back to original arrangement.
Two years ago, when the White House was selling the "Agreed Framework" to Congress, its chief virtue was said to be reciprocity. It was a safe arrangement, the administration said, because the U.S. steps--site construction, shipping of key nuclear components, start of operation of the first plant and so on--would be matched by North Korea's steps in dismantling its plutonium production complex. This complex still includes a small operating reactor and its fuel, a reprocessing plant for extracting plutonium from irradiated fuel and two reactors under construction.
The State Department insisted two years ago that we could terminate the deal at any point if the North Koreans did not reciprocate. But the way the deal is now interpreted, the North Koreans don't have to do anything to reduce their weapon potential until nearly the time when we supply the first of the two large modern power reactors and much of the equipment for the second.
To qualify for the deal, the North Koreans certainly do not have to tone down their terrorism against the South. The killings by submarine commandos and the more recent assassination of a North Korean defector have demonstrated that. South Korea, which is supplying the reactors and footing most of the expense, halted work on the project and asked for an apology from the North. The North Koreans had stopped work on "canning" the irradiated fuel from the small power reactor, a kind of flick of the dragon's tail reminding everyone that the weapon potential is still there. The U.S. administration quickly fell into line, let out that the South's approach was naive and made it clear it was impatient to get on with the nuclear project.
The way things stand now, the North Koreans do not have to ship the plutonium-laden fuel out of the country until the first of the two large reactors is built and before it goes into operation--at least six years from now. And the North does not have to dismantle anything until the second of the two reactors is built (but before it goes into operation). That could be 10 years from now, or never. That means that, barring some political change in the North, we will continue to be blackmailed by the threat of a restart of the weapons program.
One of the selling points of the "Agreed Framework" was that before any "key" nuclear components are shipped, which by law require a U.S.-North Korean agreement for cooperation, the North will let the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspect two disputed waste sites to check on the possibility of North Korean cheating on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It was the North's refusal to allow such inspections that started the entire nuclear imbroglio.
North Korea still refuses to allow such inspections, and likely by the time the IAEA gets to carry them out (if it does at all) the information will be stale and inconclusive. The agreement requires only that North Korea satisfy the IAEA, not that we find out what happened. We can be sure this hold point will not amount to much. The unspoken universal assumption that this is so constitutes a reinterpretation of the agreement in favor of North Korea.
To pay too much blackmail is also dangerous. The only way to make sense of the arrangement as negotiated is to reemphasize the element of reciprocity. We propose that the United States read the agreement to require Pyongyang to dismantle its plutonium production complex in step with the construction of the large modern power plants. The North should:
- Dismantle its reprocessing plant and begin shipping its irradiated fuel out of the country before the United States signs a nuclear cooperation agreement.
- Tear down its small operating reactor and complete shipping of its spent fuel by the time the first new power reactor is finished.
- Dismantle its two partially completed indigenous "power" reactors in step with the construction of the second U.S.-type reactor.
- It would be hard for North Korea to argue that it still needs the power from its tiny "research" reactor after the first (200 times larger) new reactor is operating. And why would it then need the reprocessing plant except to threaten a restarting of the nuclear weapon program? This observation contains the answer to the obvious criticism of our proposal; that is, how are we going to get North Korea to agree to dismantle its plutonium production plants in step with the construction of the new reactors? Well, how are we going to get North Korea to do it when the two reactors are built and we have even less leverage?