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Cirincione: North Korean Agreement ‘A Major Breakthrough’

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Joseph Cirincione
September 19, 2005

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Joseph Cirincione, a leading nuclear nonproliferation expert, says the agreement reached in Beijing at the six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program represents “a major breakthrough.” Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that even though there are many details yet to be worked out, “I think we are now looking at an 80 percent chance of getting a final deal.”

A frequent critic in the past of the Bush administration’s approach to disarmament negotiations, Cirincione also says the Beijing document is “a major accomplishment for the Bush administration.” He also says the agreement might have some carryover effect into the negotiations now going on to curb Iran’s nuclear programs.

He was interviewed on September 19, 2005 by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.

The agreement that was announced today in China on the ending of the latest round of six-party talks on North Korea seemed to be a step forward. What’s your analysis?

This is a major breakthrough. We’ve turned a critical nuclear corner on the Korean peninsula. There’s a lot of work yet to be done. There are extremely important details of interpretation, implementation, and verification that have to be worked out, but this is a major success for all the parties concerned. And it’s a major accomplishment for the Bush administration.

That’s really interesting, because you’ve been one of those people who has been quite critical of the Bush administration’s policies, right?

I have. The Bush administration changed its policy on North Korea and that change is what allowed this victory.

For those who haven’t been following the intricacies here, what actually happened starting with Bush’s second term and Condoleezza Rice becoming secretary of state?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognized that the existing policy towards North Korea was not working. She slowly and incrementally changed that policy, all the while denying there was any change in policy. She therefore kept the confidence of the president while morphing the policy from one of confrontational posturing into actual negotiations with the North Koreans. You saw in the last few months, for the first time, meaningful meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials; first at low-levels, at the United Nations for example, and then in bilateral talks at the six-party negotiations.

There was also a change in tone by the administration with much more respectful references to North Korea—that was clearly noted by the North Korean press, which for example pointed out that in one of his press conferences, President Bush talked about “Mr.” Kim Jong-il. You no longer saw references to pygmies and tyrants. And the U.S. negotiators now had the freedom to actually negotiate instead of being, as they were in the first term, locked into simply reading an agreed-upon statement at these meetings. For the first time, you had actual give and take, actual changes in positions during the negotiations. This proved critical over this past weekend and led directly to this agreement.

What are the main points of the agreement?

First and most importantly, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear-weapons programs completely.

Is that on condition of anything else happening?

There’s no condition in the agreement, although the precise sequencing of how this happens is yet to be negotiated, and this will be perhaps the most important issue. It’s who does what, when, and how do we verify it.

And what did the United States agree to?

The United States, in turn, agreed to respect the sovereignty of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], which they have already said in several statements, and to work toward normalizing relations. That could include, for example, a peace treaty that would finally end the Korean War [that ended with the signing of a 1953 armistice treaty] and bring about formal diplomatic recognition between the two countries.

There’s a third part, and this is also quite important, which is that the five countries [the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia] promised substantial aid and energy assistance to North Korea.

Was this an agreement that was worked out by the Chinese essentially, or was it a common effort?

The Chinese presented this agreement to the other five nations last Friday, and they told them to take it or leave it; that they had to agree with this. There were urgent negotiations over the last few days. There apparently was some modification in some of the key phrases, in particular the two sentences that refer to North Korea’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the agreement of the other countries that this would include the provision of a light-water [nuclear] reactor to North Korea. That was the last stumbling block—the key issue that prevented agreement. Apparently late Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, that compromise language was struck and we had a deal.

The United States had wanted the North Koreans ahead of time to agree to all sorts of things before promising a light-water reactor, right?

Yes.

And now it says what? That a light-water reactor will be discussed at an appropriate time?

There are two things: First, the U.S. position, up until this point, was that the North Koreans had to completely dismantle their program before there would be any discussion of aid and assistance. North Koreans said, “No, we have to sequence these steps. We’ll do something and you’ll have to do something.” The United States had refused to do that up until now. The second problem has been that in this last round it became clear that economic assistance for the North Koreans meant they would get a light-water reactor. The United States said, “No way. That’s not going to happen,” in part because this would start to look a lot like the 1994 Agreed Framework [negotiated by the Clinton administration], which gave North Korea a light-water reactor [in exchange for ending the North’s nuclear program] and which the Bush administration has been heavily critical of. The United States backed off of that position and agreed to discuss the possibility of getting such a reactor. And these apparently were the key compromises. It wasn’t an all or nothing for the North Koreans, and at the end of the road, there’s still a possibility of getting a light-water reactor. [Chief U.S. negotiator] Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill says for the North Koreans this reactor’s a trophy.

What does that mean? That they don’t really need it?

The North Koreans placed great symbolic value in getting this. Hill has called this a win-win situation and that’s a very important recognition. All successful negotiations have to be win-win. Each of the parties has to be able to leave the table and go back to their country, or their people, with tangible achievements. They’ve got to be able to proclaim victory. That’s what you have here. The North Koreans can claim victory that they’ve won concessions from the United States to recognize their sovereignty, not to attack them, and to allow them the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The U.S. is claiming victory; they’ve gotten North Korea to give up its entire nuclear program. And the Chinese can claim victory because their patient diplomacy has produced this breakthrough. That’s almost a model for how you want negotiations to work out.

Does this have any carryover into the Iranian negotiations that are ongoing? The United States has been insisting that Iran have no nuclear program even for peaceful uses, right?

Let me answer that first question. This gets complicated. This will have two effects on Iran: First, it will strengthen the hand of those who want to encourage negotiations to continue and not hand this to the United Nations Security Council. You will hear the country saying, “See, negotiations work. Keep talking with Iran.” On the other hand, once the North Korean deal is finalized, it undercuts the Iranian position by putting out yet another successful model of how a country, by giving up its nuclear weapons, gains diplomatically, politically, and economically. North Korea can join Libya as a successful model of a country gaining more by giving up a nuclear program than it ever could have by continuing one.

Of course, under this agreement, North Korea would get a light-water reactor. In other words, they would have the right to some peaceful use of their nuclear energy.

Yes. And everyone is agreeing in principle that Iran can have power reactors as well.

I didn’t know that.

The U.S. position used to be that Iran couldn’t even have their Bushehr reactor that Russia is building in the country now. The United States has come off that position and the red line now is drawn over the ability to enrich uranium to make fuel for those reactors, which of course can also be used to enrich uranium to make material for nuclear bombs. We don’t know yet whether the North Koreans are going to claim that they have a right to enrich uranium to fuel their reactor. The clause recognizing their right to peaceful uses has to be clarified. What exactly does that mean? Is it only a reactor? Or will the North Koreans push to get fuel-fabrication facilities as well? That would be a step too far. I don’t think the U.S. could possibly agree to that.

What would you guess are the chances this will actually get finalized?

I have been optimistic about the possibility of getting a deal with North Korea and I’m encouraged in that optimism. I think we are now looking at an 80 percent chance of getting a final deal.

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