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Samore: First Phase of Nuclear Accord with N.Korea Likely to Proceed

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 16, 2007

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Gary Samore, an expert on North Korea who helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework accord for the Clinton administration, says although a deadline mapped out by a February Six-Party Talks agreement has passed for Pyongyang to close down its Yongbyon reactor, he believes the North Koreans will close down the reactor. But after that, he says, it will be more difficult to proceed further because of North Korea’s continuing desire to be rewarded with light-water nuclear reactors, which the Bush administration refuses to provide.

Over the weekend the deadline in the Six-Party agreement passed for North Korea to begin steps to close down its Yongbyon reactor, in part because the United States was slow to get $25 million released from a bank in Macau. Some people are already a little suspicious, wondering whether this is just an ordinary technical delay or whether North Korea’s stalling. What do you think?

The North Koreans were not obligated to shut down the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon until they got the money back. And since there were delays in returning the funds to them, they naturally didn’t start to carry out their end of the bargain until they actually were satisfied the money had been returned. Now that the technical difficulties have been overcome and the money is apparently available to the North Koreans, I think they will go ahead and carry out their end of the first phase, which is to seal and shut down these facilities under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] supervision. That normally would take a couple of days or even longer, depending upon the exact state of the facilities; for example whether or not there’s spent fuel still located in their reactor.

And then what’s supposed to happen?

Then it gets much more difficult. The second phase requires North Korea to make a full declaration of their nuclear programs, which presumably would include their secret [uranium-]enrichment program, and to disable their nuclear facilities. In exchange, they’re supposed to get a much bigger dollop of foreign assistance—up to one million tons of heavy fuel oil, or its equivalent in other kinds of assistance.

How often do they get that one million tons?

The way the agreement is written, it’s supposed to be a one-time payment, but the North Koreans have said they want that one-million-ton payment in the form of light-water nuclear reactors, which were originally started back in the mid-nineties under the Agreed Framework agreement of 1994 signed with the United States, and then cancelled by the Bush administration after it was discovered that North Korea was cheating on the agreement. Now the North Koreans are saying they want that project to be resumed, and the Bush administration is still opposed to providing North Korea with nuclear technology.

What about the nuclear bombs that everyone thinks they have?

There’s nothing in the agreement that explicitly says North Korea has to give up the existing plutonium or nuclear weapons that they have, and that’s often cited as one of the weaknesses in the agreement. There’s an allusion to the September 2005 statement in which North Korea agrees to eliminate its nuclear capabilities, and the United States points to that as an indication that this agreement will eventually lead to nuclear disarmament. But the North Koreans certainly believe they’re going to hang on to their existing nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.

I guess they feel they need that for prestige reasons in Asia.

It’s not really prestige. They believe having nuclear weapons or having the appearance of having nuclear weapons is necessary to fend off pressure from the outside world. They’re nervous about bigger, stronger neighbors, which they suspect might gang up and bring about a collapse of their regime through economic and political pressure. They think having nuclear weapons makes them a dangerous animal that shouldn’t be cornered, and they want to be left alone so they can deal with their internal affairs without external interference.

This agreement says it could conceivably lead to the United States removing North Korea from the terrorist list, and a Korean peace treaty, and normalization of relations. This is not likely to happen in the last two years of the Bush administration, is it?

I think that’s probably right. You might think of taking a step on the way to normalization, or on the way to a peace treaty. For example you might begin talks to conclude a peace treaty, and some people have talked about the Six-Party Talks being transformed into a mechanism to begin discussions on a peace treaty, which the United States would certainly support; China, Russia, and Japan would support this. The issue is whether North and South Korea would be comfortable with that framework. The North Koreans in particular have always thought that a peace treaty had to be signed between Washington and Pyongyang, because they consider Seoul to be a puppet regime. The United States of course has insisted that any peace treaty to end the Korean War has to be between North and South Korea.

Have there been earlier talks on this?

We had several years of what we called Four-Party talks in the late 1990s, which was the United States, China, North and South Korea, trying to reach agreement on a peace treaty. Those talks fell through.

Everybody knows the political land mines, and the biggest land mine is North Korea’s refusal to accept a South Korean signature on a peace treaty. The North Koreans have also always insisted that the United States must remove all forces as a condition for a peace treaty, which is something neither Seoul nor Washington are prepared to do.

It doesn’t seem like it’s likely to happen any time soon.

No, it doesn’t. What is conceivably possible is to take North Korea off the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, because from an objective standpoint, North Korean involvement in terrorist activities is ancient; it goes back twenty or thirty years. In theory the president, from a legal standpoint, could make an executive decision to remove North Korea from the list, and that would lift some economic sanctions. But Washington has promised Tokyo that it will take into consideration progress on the abductee issue. That’s very important to the Japanese because they feel they don’t have any leverage unless the abductee issue is linked to the question of taking North Korea off the terrorism list. And there doesn’t seem to be much movement between North Korea and Japan on the abductee issue, so that’s also stuck right now.

Now, you were just in Tokyo. This is really a live issue there?

Very much. The Japanese were really shocked by the dramatic change in U.S. policy toward North Korea, because the Bush administration in a very short period of time went from a very hard line, demanding complete disarmament, to what the Japanese see as a very soft line, accepting very vague formulations for future disarmament steps. The Japanese are nervous that the United States and North Korea will move ahead with normalization and further disarmament steps and leave them holding the bag without progress on abductees.

What do you think was behind the Bush administration’s sudden change?

I think Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice convinced the president that unless the United States accepted a more modest agreement which would stabilize the situation, there was a real danger that North Korea would resume nuclear testing, and the administration would be faced with a new crisis in Northeast Asia at a time when all of its energy and attention is focused on the Middle East. For purely practical reasons, to avoid a crisis, the White House decided to make this concession, even though it really amounted to a complete about-face of its previous policy.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is really apoplectic on this.

Bolton has always argued that the current North Korean regime will not be persuaded or pressured to give up its nuclear weapons, and the only way to solve the problem is to try to destroy the regime through economic pressures. From his standpoint, this February deal, which gives the North Koreans cash and oil, only serves to prop up a regime which has no intention of even giving up its nuclear weapons.

Some reports say South Korea may hold up some rice shipments to North Korea until they carry about the first phase.

That remains to be seen. The South Koreans have said future assistance would be linked to future progress on the nuclear issue. My guess is that once the first phase is put in place, the South Koreans are likely to feel freer to provide additional assistance. We’ve got presidential elections coming up at the end of this year in South Korea, and one argument for the North Koreans reaching the February agreement is that they hope to tilt the election in favor of the more liberal party, which is more willing to move ahead with North Korea separate from the United States.

I noticed in their celebration yesterday of the Kim Il Sung’s birthday there was no attack on the United States.  So I guess for the moment we’re on good terms.

The North Koreans know how to engineer a charm offensive. For the time being they’ve decided to avoid the usual kind of histrionic insults against the United States, and of course they invited Governor [Bill] Richardson to come to North Korea and collect a couple more remains of U.S. servicemen from the Korean War, which they’ve been saving up for this occasion.

I imagine the North Koreans took advantage of [Director of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council] Victor Cha’s presence to send a message back to the White House that North Koreans would certainly like to build up the bilateral process of negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea at the expense of the Six-Party Talks, and the North Koreans are hoping the administration will send a very senior envoy to Pyongyang to move the process forward.

When you were in government, how close were we to having diplomatic relations with North Korea?

We had worked out the arrangements to establish liaison offices in both Washington and Pyongyang, which is essentially diplomatic relations, and the deal fell apart because of a disagreement over the kinds of security rules that would apply, and in particular whether the United States could support our mission in Pyongyang over land, through the DMZ [demilitarized zone], with diplomatic pouch [means for the government to send items to its ambassador without inspection by a foreign government]. The North Koreans at first accepted that, and then later on they reversed their position and said they couldn’t accept that.

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