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Samore: Limited Progress Possible on Korea, Iran

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 6, 2007

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Gary S. Samore, an expert on North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, cites evidence of changes on both negotiating fronts that might achieve limited progress. Samore, who participated in nuclear talks with Pyongyang during the Clinton administration, says the U.S. negotiator with North Korea appears to be acting with new flexibility in seeking an interim agreement. Samore says he also sees some movement in Iran to ease international pressure, which might lead to a suspension of that nation’s uranium enrichment efforts. Yet even the most optimistic scenarios in both cases, he says, “lead to constraints, limits, delays on the program, rather than the achievement of our ultimate objective, which is to eliminate nuclear weapons in North Korea and to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”

The Six-Party Talks on North Korea resume on Thursday and Christopher Hill, the U.S. negotiator, seemed pretty upbeat in a briefing he had at the State Department last week. As I recall, the North Koreans at some point in the last two months said some agreement was possible. Are we going to break the deadlock on this issue?

Well, there are certainly some indications that Ambassador Hill has been given more negotiating flexibility than he previously enjoyed. For example, he was allowed to meet bilaterally with his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan in Berlin in order to set up this next round of Six-Party Talks. As I understand it, Chris is going to be able to explore with the North Koreans a more limited approach toward nuclear disarmament that would begin with an interim step rather than going directly to full disarmament, which is really not a practical objective in the negotiations.

He would try to get the North Koreans to agree to something that would at least return IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspectors to the Yongbyon nuclear facility and would shut down the five-megawatt reactor, which is currently being used to produce plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Ideally, he would convince the North Koreans to take some step to disable the five-megawatt reactor so it couldn’t quickly be turned back on to resume production of plutonium.

And in return, the North Koreans would get?

One of the uncertainties in this negotiation is that the North Koreans have not been very clear so far, as I understand it, about naming their price.

I’ve seen reports about them wanting heavy oil again.

Well, certainly that’s a reasonable speculation, because the original agreement between the United States and North Korea [Agreed Framework of 1994] was that the North Koreans would shut down the five-megawatt reactor in return for a supply of alternative energy in the form of heavy fuel oil. When the United States shut off the delivery of heavy fuel oil back in 2003, the North Koreans decided to resume production at the five-megawatt reactor.

But I understand they’re also saying that if the United States is demanding that North Korea disable the reactor in an irreversible way, they want some kind of political gesture or action on the part of the United States that would reverse what the North Koreans call Washington’s hostile policy toward them in an irreversible way. Now obviously it’s much easier to think of a physical mechanism for creating irreversibility in the case of the reactor than to come up with an irreversible political step. This may be North Korea’s attempt to avoid the U.S. demand for irreversibility. The North Koreans have indicated that they’re willing to shut down the five-megawatt reactor, allow the IAEA inspectors to return. But so far the North Koreans are not willing to take steps that would actually disable the reactor.

Now they’ve already produced, by all by estimates, the nuclear material for six to eight nuclear weapons. When they say weapons, what do they mean by this?

We don’t really know how many weapons they have, but we can estimate within reasonable margins of accuracy how much plutonium they have. But as to how many weapons they’ve actually fabricated, we don’t know.

The talks broke down back in 2002, when the United States discovered the North Koreans had a secret enriched-uranium program. What’s happened to that?

Well that’s going to be a very difficult issue to resolve. Even if Chris Hill can get the North Koreans to agree to shut down the five-megawatt reactor and therefore cap their plutonium production, the next issue that will have to be addressed is how to account for this covert enrichment program.

When you talk about an enrichment program, do they have all these cascades and everything like the Iranians are trying to do?

Nobody knows. There’s very good evidence that the North Koreans got the centrifuge technology from A.Q. Khan [former head of Pakistan’s nuclear program], and according to the Pakistani government, A.Q. Khan provided them not only with the technology but also with some sample centrifuge machines.There’s very good evidence the North Koreans were on a shopping spree a couple of years ago, trying to buy very large quantities of materials that could be used to manufacture a large-scale centrifuge facility. But how far they’ve gotten and where this might be located, those are big uncertainties. The only way that issue can be resolved is if the North Koreans decide at some point to be transparent and present us with evidence about what they’ve been doing, where it’s located, how far they’ve gotten and so forth. But given North Korea’s record of cheating and lying about their nuclear program, anything they tell us is not likely to be fully satisfactory.

Now it’s almost hard for me to believe that the Bush administration, having roundly criticized the Clinton administration, is going to be willing to accept what is more or less the basic underpinnings of that Agreed Framework accord.

If the Bush administration can get the North Koreans to agree to some measure to disable the five-megawatt reactor, at least create some technical obstacles to turning it back on again, they’ll be able to argue that they’ve done better than the Clinton administration, which only got a freeze.

But even getting steps to disable the five-megawatt reactor is far short of what the Bush administration up to now has demanded, which has been total, complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament. It reflects a growing realism in Washington that complete disarmament is not achievable and that unless the United States can make some progress in these talks, there’s a real risk the North Koreans, at some point, will walk away from the table and resume nuclear testing. The North Koreans have already demonstrated they can test, with relative impunity. The Chinese and South Koreans are just not willing to pull the rug out from under Kim Jong-Il’s regime in response to testing. The Bush administration has enough problems on its plate and doesn’t need a crisis in Asia as well as everything else they’re dealing with in the Middle East.

The Japanese have their own problems with North Korea dealing with kidnappings of Japanese citizens in the past. As I understand it, the Japanese government is taking a very tough line that there should be no deal unless the kidnapping issue is resolved. Of course, the North Koreans claim they’ve already had a full disclosure.

The Japanese are nervous that if the Bush administration accepts something less than complete disarmament, that will allow North Korea to retain nuclear weapons capability, which is primarily targeted against Tokyo. And right now the main purpose of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability is to hold Tokyo at risk. So the Japanese have staked out a very, very hard-line position, perhaps even harder than the United States. And that may cause some tension between Washington and Tokyo if the United States tries to make a deal that is less than full disarmament.

Is there any carryover from the North Korean talks into the Iranian nuclear discussions?

I really don’t think so. Because North Korea is so different from Iran in terms of its position in the region and the world, I really don’t think there’s much direct carryover.

Some people had speculated each side was watching how the other’s negotiations went, and the concessions would follow. But on the Iranian talks, if I can just diverge, that’s reaching a kind of crunch situation now too, because the Security Council deadline is in a couple of weeks. And Iran is due to have a celebration, I think.

February 11th, Revolution Day.

That’s right. Some people have speculated they might announce a suspension of uranium enrichment to get into talks which would include the United States. What do you think?

Well, certainly the optimistic scenario. The Iranians appear to be rushing ahead as quickly as possible to install a three-thousand centrifuge-machine pilot-scale facility at their enrichment site at Natanz, even though most technical experts believe they’ve not really reached the point yet where they have very reliable machines. So this will be a Potemkin pilot-scale facility. But it could allow the Iranians to claim they’ve met their technical objective of installing a pilot-scale facility. And therefore, they could rest on their laurels for some period of time, put a suspension back in place on the program and talk to the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France, plus Germany as the United Nations has demanded. That’s the optimistic scenario.

And that of course would get the United States to the table.

Yes, exactly.

And all the people who say the United States should reach a “grand agreement” with Iran to settle all issues will now have their chance to see if anything’s possible.

I’m very skeptical that any grand agreement is possible. If Iran agrees to suspend its enrichment program, it will really be more of a tactical decision in order to lower the international pressure: the threat of sanctions, the threat of U.S. and Israeli military attack, rather than a genuine desire on the part of Iran to reach an agreement to give up its nuclear weapons program.

It has been interesting how the president of Iran has been rather muted lately. There’s been a lot of speculation that Ayatollah Khamenei has told him to shut up about nuclear issues.

The speculation is that the Supreme Leader [Khamenei] found it useful for a while to have [President Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad out making very controversial statements, not only about the nuclear program but also about Israel and the Holocaust and so forth. But at some point, that very provocative, confrontational approach began to be counterproductive. The enemies of Ahmedinejad have convinced the Supreme Leader that now is the time to take a lower-key approach, to be more accommodationist. And there is at least some evidence that the Supreme Leader has clipped Ahmedinejad’s wings. But that may be more tactical than a fundamental shift in strategy.

Well, in about another month we’ll know whether we have room for optimism in North Korea and Iran or whether we just go back to our usual gloomy outlook on things.

The important thing is that even if the optimistic scenarios play out, they don’t lead to nuclear disarmament. They lead to constraints, limits, delays on the program, rather than the achievement of our ultimate objective, which is to eliminate nuclear weapons in North Korea and to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

And to do that, you need to wait for a new president?

In the case of North Korea, it’s probably impossible to roll back the clock. The best this administration or the next administration can do is limit the size of the program. In the case of Iran, there may be slightly more options available to the next administration, because the Iranians are still some years away from having a nuclear weapons capability. But it’s still going to be a very difficult challenge to convince them to stop a program that’s been twenty years in the making.

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