Gary Samore, an expert on North Korean nuclear policy who helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement for the Clinton administration, says the latest accord reached at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing was "a wise compromise" for the Bush administration. "I think it was the only practical approach, the only feasible approach that was available," says Samore, who is CFR's vice president and director of studies. "And I think the Bush administration should be supported for recognizing that it was better to accept a limited agreement which stabilized the situation and capped North Korea's production of plutonium, as opposed to holding out for a much more desirable but unattainable agreement that would require full disarmament."
The Six-Party talks in Beijing have come up with what's called the "Denuclearization Action Plan" for North Korea, which essentially freezes the North Korean nuclear production at its current levels and calls for certain steps and a number of working groups. You were a veteran of the last big agreement with North Korea, "the Agreed Framework" of 1994. What's the difference between the two?
Well, both agreements start with a freeze, which is to say capping additional North Korean production of plutonium. Of course the Agreed Framework capped North Korea's production of plutonium at a lower level. The big difference, I think, between the two agreements is that the Agreed Framework laid out a very elaborate step by step timetable for nuclear disarmament, which was linked to the construction of a light water reactor project in North Korea. This current agreement doesn't really have many details about additional disarmament steps beyond the freeze.
"The lack of reference to the existing nuclear arsenal, I think, is an indication that the North Koreans are going to resist any steps that would require them to give up what they currently possess." Instead, it sets up a negotiating framework with five working groups and a suggestion of additional steps that will be taken in terms of North Korean declaration of its nuclear activities, the disablement of existing facilities, in exchange for large amounts of assistance. But it doesn't really lay out the exact, detailed sequence or the verification procedures, and there's likely to be very difficult sticking issues in the future negotiations.
One of the working groups is to talk about normalization of North Korean-U.S. relations. Of course, in the Clinton administration, the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea, so we must have been very close even then.
Yes. Under the Agreed Framework, the United States and North Korea began discussions about establishing diplomatic relations. And those talks really broke down over some of the details about how the United States would be allowed to support its embassy, or its mission in Pyongyang. In particular, the question was whether the United States would be allowed to use land transportation through the DMZ [demilitarized zone] in order to provide support for our mission in Pyongyang. Now that issue may crop up again in the course of these negotiations as well, because the North Koreans did not want to allow the United States to have free access to its mission in Pyongyang through the DMZ.
How do other countries do it? Through the Chinese border?
Most of them fly in things from Beijing. And we wanted the right to take diplomatic pouches, that is to say, to have uninspected access through the DMZ to our mission in North Korea. At first, the North Koreans agreed, and then they reneged on that agreement, and the negotiations collapsed.
At the time of the Agreed Framework, as you alluded, North Korea was not believed to have more than maybe one nuclear device. And now they're believed to have enough for about six to eight, maybe a little more. That doesn't give them a big arsenal, but do you think they're going to try to hold on to this and not agree to destroy their stockpiles?
Yes, I think the North Koreans will continue to insist on retaining some level of a nuclear weapons capacity, which they regard as essential for the survival of the state. In fact, it's quite interesting that the second half of the current agreement, which talks about additional steps, doesn't specifically mention North Korea giving up its existing plutonium or existing nuclear weapons. Instead, it talks about a declaration of nuclear activities and a disablement of existing facilities. But the lack of reference to the existing nuclear arsenal, I think, is an indication that the North Koreans are going to resist any steps that would require them to give up what they currently possess.
Now what do we want from the North Koreans? What would they have to give us to have diplomatic relations, for instance?
Well, that's not spelled out in this agreement. I mean, the agreement says that in the initial phase, which is the freeze on plutonium production, we will begin talks aimed at resolving bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations. So the subsequent working groups are going to have to negotiate sequencing. What steps would we expect North Korea to take in the disarmament process in exchange for the establishment of full diplomatic relations? That's going to be one of the many tricky issues that will be involved in the subsequent negotiations.
Now, there's nothing in here either about uranium reprocessing, which was the issue that eventually led to the breakdown in talks in 2002. What's happened with that issue? Has the United States given up figuring out if they have it or not?
Well, I think it's still a live issue, and again, it's been postponed. In the initial agreement, the freeze, the North Koreans are obligated to "discuss" with the other parties a full list of their nuclear programs.
"The lack of reference to the existing nuclear arsenal, I think, is an indication that the North Koreans are going to resist any steps that would require them to give up what they currently possess."
Then, in the second phase, the phase that leads to further disarmament steps, the North Koreans are obligated to make a "complete declaration" of all of their nuclear programs. And presumably, it's in that second phase that the U.S. would expect North Korea to acknowledge it has had a secret [uranium] enrichment program and to provide transparency and information about that program. But again, that's going to be one of the really difficult issues that will have to be resolved in the second phase of this agreement.
And there's nothing in this agreement that talks about doing away with reprocessing of uranium. I know we talked about the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
That's correct. The initial phase is a simple freeze in exchange for 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and the beginning of a negotiating process of normalization between North Korea and the U.S. and North Korea and Japan.
Now John Bolton, who most recently had been UN acting ambassador and is an advocate for very tough policy, was quite critical last night of this agreement. He said the president should reject it. He said we could've had this agreement five years ago. Is that right?
I think this was available at least three years ago when the North Koreans indicated that they were prepared to accept a freeze on their plutonium production. At that time, the Bush administration was insisting on complete disarmament. And unfortunately, that just wasn't an attainable objective. And I think the Bush administration recognized that it wanted to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula and avoid the danger that North Korea would walk away from the talks and resume nuclear testing. It was better to accept a more limited practical agreement to freeze and engage in subsequent negotiations, because insisting on total disarmament was simply not attainable.
You mean the administration initially wanted them to destroy what they had, everything at once?
Well, the administration argued that the lesson of the Agreed Framework, the 1994 agreement, was that a freeze followed by a long-term, step-by-step disarmament plan was not a wise policy, because the North Koreans eventually cheated and then reneged on the Agreed Framework. And so as a consequence, they said having learned the lesson of the Agreed Framework, they were going to insist on complete, irreversible, and short-term disarmament as the only acceptable approach. And of course, that's a very laudable objective, but one that simply can't be achieved through diplomacy because the North Koreans are not prepared to give up their nuclear weapons.
And do you think the administration decided to go for this more limited approach to keep our partners happy?
Well, I think that the North Korean nuclear test from last October demonstrated that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test with relative impunity; that, in fact, the Chinese and South Koreans were not prepared to seriously punish the North Korean regime for the nuclear test. And the danger, from the White House standpoint, is that if the talks didn't make any progress, the North Koreans might walk away and resume nuclear testing. And the United States would be facing a crisis in East Asia at the same time that we have so many problems in the Middle East, especially Iraq.
"The danger, from the White House standpoint, is that if the talks didn't make any progress, the North Koreans might walk away and resume nuclear testing."
So wisely, I think, the White House decided to make compromises with North Korea, [to try to] stabilize the situation in East Asia so that the U.S. could focus all its attention and energy on dealing with the various problems we have in the Middle East. And I think that was a very smart decision. I think our allies in East Asia will basically be happy with this agreement, and it will help to stabilize the situation and avoid the danger that North Korea will conduct additional nuclear tests for the rest of the Bush administration.
So your bottom line is this is a wise compromise.
I think it's a wise compromise. I think it was the only practical approach, the only feasible approach that was available. And I think the Bush administration should be supported for recognizing that it was better to accept a limited agreement which stabilized the situation and capped North Korea's production of plutonium, as opposed to holding out for a much more desirable but unattainable agreement that would require full disarmament.
Will this have any spillover into the Iranian discussion?
I think it might have a modest impact in the sense that it demonstrates to everybody that the United States is willing and able to make very difficult compromises in these nuclear negotiations. And to the extent that there are advocates in Tehran of accepting a suspension of Iran's enrichment program as a basis for getting into negotiations with the United States, their hand might be slightly strengthened. They could point to this agreement as a demonstration that the Bush White House is willing to make practical compromises when necessary.
This doesn't have to be ratified by the Senate, obviously.
That's correct. It's not a treaty. The only thing that Congress might need to do is they might need to approve funding for some of the heavy fuel oil that's going to be shipped to North Korea.
It's not clear who's paying for that. Are we supposed to split the costs?
Well, it's not clear, and I'm sure that there have been side discussions between the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the other parties about who will pay for this initial shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
How much did we ship them in the past?
Well, what's interesting is that in the 1994 agreement, when North Korea froze its 5 megawatt reactor, we shipped to them 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil in compensation. So this agreement very much recaptures the situation in 1994, where we provided 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil in exchange for shutting down the five megawatt reactor.