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North Korea Expert Pritchard: Agreement is a ‘Good’ One, But Dealing with Details Will Be Tough

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, President, Korea Economic Institute
September 21, 2005

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Charles L. Pritchard, a former top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, says the recently announced set of principles for ending North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program was “a good agreement” and set the stage for the much tougher round of negotiations due to start in mid-November on working out the detailed procedures.

“While there are good elements in this draft, and by large it is a good draft, there are some weak points that have now got to be addressed to firm it up, or at least to formally set it aside to allow the tough work to take place in November,” Pritchard says. He says the timing is crucial and asks, When does North Korea have to end its nuclear weapons work, and when do the other parties have to negotiate a civilian light-water nuclear reactor for the North?

Pritchard, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 20, 2005.

There was a bit of surprise euphoria in Washington on Monday when word of the agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons was announced at the six-party talks in Beijing. This morning, some of the articles in the press are much more cautious and raise questions on whether the optimism was ill-founded. What do you think?

Well, there are two parts to that. One, the agreement that was reached Monday was a good agreement for a couple of reasons. First, it closed out the fourth round of negotiations; we were beginning to have exhausted negotiators, creativity had run its course. They had held two sessions, had met for twenty days, and needed to come to closure. There was a weakness, however, in what they came up with and that weakness was in fact the lines in which the accord said the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] “stated that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and that “the other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of provision of a light-water reactor to the DPRK.”

That was going to come back to unravel, in my opinion, at some point in the future. I did not expect it to unravel so quickly. I can think of a couple reasons for this, the most prominent one of which is the story out of the New York Times Tuesday. The story talked about the decision that Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice made in accepting this language; that while the administration was not particularly happy with it, they would go ahead and do it, but they would then immediately announce their own views as to what it meant.

When you’re creating a compromise, a face-saving way for both parties to agree to move forward, it doesn’t seem the wisest thing to then explicitly say what it does mean and what it doesn’t mean so quickly after the ink is barely dry. And that is what I think has occurred. The United States was very explicit in saying that what this means is that North Koreans will first have to give up their entire nuclear weapons program, they’ll have to re enter the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and abide by International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] safeguards.

Now that’s a perfectly reasonable position to have, it’s just not what the agreement on paper said. And I think that in turn, it caused a reaction by the North Koreans to put their own interpretation on that, and they’ve come back with probably a little harsher interpretation saying their original strategy, negotiating posture, of getting a light-water reactor, was an essential element before they would give up their nuclear weapons programs.

In many respects, that piece that was undone will have to be readdressed between now and November, if you want the November 15 round to proceed with the negotiations that were all along, by design, going to be much harder than what we’ve gone through in the last twenty days of negotiations in the fourth round of talks. That’s essentially where we are.

I See. So, are we back where we were before this agreement was announced?

No, there are a lot of good things in the agreement itself but I don’t think they represent a done deal. Now you’ve got to come back to what was the point in the purpose of the agreement, and I believe it’s one in which the U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, wanted to have a statement of principles which would then guide or be the outline for what the ultimate deal would look like. Everybody would have a clear view of what we were moving toward and that would be a simplified way of getting there.

Now, in dealing with the North Koreans, that’s not always the case. I think when he came back during the recess, during the fourth round, he expressed some degree of frustration that dealing with North Korea wasn’t just a linear proposition, it had a circular element to it. Elements that you negotiated one day you would end up on another day renegotiating or talking about again. It didn’t put them to rest once and for all. And so while there are good elements in this draft, and by large it is a good draft, there are some weak points that have now got to be addressed to firm it up or at least to formally set it aside to allow the tough work to take place in November.

How different is this from the Agreed Framework accord signed by the United States and North Korea in 1994?

One, the Agreed Framework was a final document, so you almost have to go back to an earlier version of a statement between the United States and North Korea—I think it was in 1993 to make a comparison—but let’s just follow the parallels here. The Agreed Framework was designed to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as we knew it and, in return, the North Koreans were going to receive economic assistance and a path toward normalized relations. Now, as far as that is concerned, this is very much a parallel. It’s the same kind of approach.

There are some shortcomings in the Agreed Framework that this administration will not want to repeat. And as far as they’re concerned, I think those are probably two-fold. One is the scope of the players involved. The first Agreed Framework was in fact a bilateral document signed by the United States and North Korea, although it was implemented through the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization [KEDO], a consortium involving Japan, South Korea, and later the EU [European Union]. This new document will ultimately involve all six parties. That’s No.1. The second part is that in the Agreed Framework, there were elements of nonproliferation concerns that were postponed. The Agreed Framework allowed North Korea to remain out of compliance with its NPT requirements until later in the Agreed Framework mechanism. To conclude, we did not have a provision to remove spent fuel until the first light-water reactor was being turned over to the North Koreans. So I think you will find in any agreement that this administration works toward there won’t be a deferment of those types of nonproliferation concerns, that it will be verifiable, it will be upfront, and it will complete. So those are the differences that I think you should look for.

The New York Times made a point of saying there is nothing in the agreement specifically about North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program.

I would disagree with that. When you take a look at the approach that the administration took in the first couple of years in the six-party talks, they essentially gave [former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs] James Kelly instructions that said, “Point No. 1 is: You will gain the North Koreans’ public admission to their highly enriched uranium program. Point No. 2: If you fail, go back to point No. 1.”

What has occurred with Chris Hill is they have gone to a more subtle way of getting to this and that is through connect-the-dots language that they’re using. The North Koreans will agree to give up all nuclear weapons programs and their related facilities, whatever the terminology is. So the “all” is one dot and the second dot is the reference in the document to the 1992 joint declaration of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula which should be observed and implemented. That document is the link to enriched uranium. It prohibited enriched-uranium facilities and activities. The administration, I’m sure, if you asked them point blank, would say “No, it’s there. It just doesn’t say it in black and white with the words ‘enriched uranium.’ But the concept and the ability to resolve that is embedded in this document.”

So I guess in the end its going to come back again to how much China wants to lean on the North Koreans, for instance, to not destroy this agreement. So we’ll see what happens as we go along, right?

Well, I don’t think the Chinese will exert the kind of pressure most Americans think they have. The Chinese do exert a level of pressure and North Koreans ultimately respond as it pertains to their views of the relationship with China. But the Chinese are not going to be able to control an on-off switch whether the North Koreans participate or don’t participate. They certainly will try to keep them involved, but ultimately it will be a decision that the North Koreans have to make.

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