Holding North Korea Accountable
Get Nuclear Inspectors into North Korea Now
The press hardly mentioned it, but this week North Korea pretended to live up to its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) pledges by announcing it would allow international inspectors to visit one of its nuclear-isotope research laboratories. Never mind that the facility is so benign and minor it does not require international nuclear inspections — or that Pyongyang is allowing it only to be "visited" rather than examined. The NPT's inspectorate, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has already praised the move as a promising sign.
What's going on here? Clearly, Pyongyang is feeling the heat after President Bush's November 26 press comments put the spotlight on Iraq and North Korea as international nonproliferation violators who "need to be held accountable."
There's plenty of history here. For almost a decade, North Korea has refused to allow international inspectors to check on evidence uncovered in 1992 that it cheated on its commitment not to develop nuclear weapons. At that time, Pyongyang announced that if pressed it would pull out of the Nonproliferation Treaty altogether. The NPT, to which North Korea had adhered in 1985, of course requires members to allow such IAEA inspections. Pyongyang's refusal put it in violation, and still does.
In 1994, the Clinton administration, spooked by the possibility that North Korea would get access to far more plutonium for bombs, offered the North two large modern power reactors and a supply of oil, in return for a freeze on its plutonium production and a agreement to eventually comply with the NPT. This, of course, involved glossing over the existing violations. Under the 1994 agreement, the two reactors wouldn't be completed unless the North resolved past violations. But the Clinton administration's diplomatic body language left the North unfazed.
Fortunately, the Bush administration has taken the need for nuclear inspections a lot more seriously.
This is vital because, after a lot of preliminary negotiation and site preparation, an international consortium known as the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) has started excavating the promised reactors' foundations. Their plan is to pour concrete next year, and then begin to install equipment. In about three years, the project could be ready to install key nuclear equipment. But the 1994 agreement says that the North can't get them until IAEA inspectors
have determined that Pyongyang is out of the nuclear bomb-making business, and has not hidden nuclear explosives.
This is not a simple sign-off. The IAEA estimates that it would need at least three years after it gained full access to North Korea's nuclear sites to be able to make such a determination. In other words, North Korea needs to open up to IAEA inspectors now to comply with the l994 deal. The l994 agreement says North Korea "will come into full compliance" with its IAEA when a "substantial portion" of the reactor project is completed. And "substantial portion" is defined to be the point the project is now expected to reach in — about three years.
Not surprisingly, Pyongyang does not share this view. Its officials insist that "substantial portion" designates only the point at which they have to begin to talk about IAEA inspections. That doesn't sound like the response of someone with nothing to hide. Pyongyang is obviously trying to drag out the process, in the hope that we'll let the nuclear inspection issue go rather than risk provoking a crisis.
North Korea's refusal to acknowledge the inspection issue also involves violation of the power-reactor supply contract it signed with KEDO. Under the terms of that agreement, a reactor construction schedule — including all of the nuclear-inspection requirements of the l994 deal — must be agreed to by all parties involved in the reactors' construction. The sticking point here is the scheduling of inspections. KEDO's way around this has been simply to ignore the requirement, and hope nobody notices.
All of this suggests the need for a tougher approach to securing North Korea's compliance with its NPT obligations — to hold up further work on the reactors until it does comply. After all, North Korea is bound to the terms of the NPT and to its IAEA agreements, with or without the reactor deal the U.S. cut with Pyongyang.
In addition, proceeding without full inspections is risky. Incredibly, our negotiators did not realize that the new reactors are so large that each could produce some 50 bombs' worth of essentially weapons-grade plutonium during the first 15 months of operation. If we can't get the North Koreans to open up as they should now, how can we trust them with such machines later? It seems only sensible to hold up construction until North Korea meets all of its NPT commitments.
Certainly this much is clear: What's needed — and what President Bush is now calling for — is far more than what Pyongyang is offering.