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Latest U.S.-N. Korea Deal Is a 'Very Modest Step' Forward

Interviewee: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 14, 2008

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Gary Samore, who was active in nuclear diplomacy with North Korea in the Clinton administration, says the latest agreement between the United States and North Korea, by which Washington removes North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorists, and North Korea resumes dismantling its plutonium facilities and agrees to inspectors, is only a "very modest step forward" because it allows the next administration to carry on. "[W]e shouldn't kid ourselves: This is only the very beginning of the toughest part of the negotiations," says Samore, CFR's director of studies.

Over the weekend the United States removed North Korea from the list of countries viewed as state sponsors of terrorism, and in return North Korea now says it's going to resume allowing UN inspectors and American personnel into the Yongbyon nuclear facility and other declared nuclear sites. What's happened since the
original agreement was announced earlier this year by President Bush?

North Korea and the United States have agreed on a verification protocol, which is intended to allow the United States, along with the other countries in the Six-Party Talks [South Korea, Japan, China, Russia], to verify North Korea's nuclear declaration. And, like most agreements with North Korea, it has some positive elements but also has a lot of ambiguity about implementation, and whether or not the implementation goes forward smoothly is going to be the big question.

What are the positive steps?


The North Koreans have agreed in principle to allow U.S. experts to take samples and other forensic evidence at North Korean nuclear facilities, and that's an essential step necessary to verify North Korea's nuclear declaration. In addition, the protocol allows for the United States  to visit so-called undeclared sites by mutual consent-that is, if the North Koreans agree. The big question mark is if the North Koreans will agree or not. The immediate test will be in the verification of North Korea's plutonium declaration. There are some suspect nuclear waste sites at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, which the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] have long believed may contain evidence of undeclared reprocessing activities. And these sites were the cause of the original nuclear crisis back in 1993, when North Korea refused to let the IAEA go to these sites. The question now is whether North Korea is prepared to let U.S. experts go to the sites and take samples.

In other words, the question is whether North Korea was continuing to reprocess after it said it wasn't?


No, the question is whether their declaration of having produced thirty-nine kilograms of plutonium is accurate or not. They've provided to the IAEA and to the United States operating records from the facilities which support their contention. But in order to independently verify that, the United States  will need to take samples and measurements at all of the key facilities at Yongbyon, including the five-megawatt reactor, the processing facility, the fuel fabrication facility, and these undeclared or suspect nuclear waste sites.

Scientists can actually tell from taking samples how much plutonium they produce?


Well, yes. Of course nothing is precise, and there will be a margin of error, but by taking these samples and then comparing them to North Korea's operating records, we'll be able to come up with a reasonable approximation of whether the North Korean declaration is accurate.

Back in 2002, when the talks between the United States and North Korea broke down, it was over the question of whether North Korea was enriching uranium secretly. What's happened to that issue?


That issue has been kicked down the road, like many of the most difficult issues, basically, for the next U.S. administration to deal with. The Bush administration made a decision to just focus on plutonium, something which we know the North Koreans have produced and which is the basis for their nuclear weapons program. So the declaration North Korea made a few months ago is only on plutonium, and this verification protocol, at least in the near term, focuses on trying to verify whether that declaration is accurate. The whole question of a North Korean declaration on uranium  enrichment and how we would verify that has been delayed and probably won't be resolved during the Bush adminsitration's term in office.

Does the Bush administration really know where North Korea may be enriching uranium or is this whole enrichment issue because we know that the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan secretly sent materials to North Korea at some point?


The evidence we have for uranium enrichment is both the knowledge that Pakistan provided centrifuge technology and also the fact that North Korea was trying to buy very large quantities of specialized materials for an enrichment program. But we have a lot of uncertainty about the status of that program, even [about] where it might be located. As a consequence it's going to be very difficult to verify the enrichment program unless the North Koreans are forthcoming and make a full declaration about what they're doing and what the status of the program is. And up to now they haven't been willing to do that, so that's going to be a really tough issue for the next president to deal with.

Why did the North Koreans threaten to go back on their agreement to stop their plutonium program? Was it solely because the United States was slow to take them off this terrorist list? Why did they get so upset about that?


The North Koreans claim the original agreement was that once they made a declaration about their plutonium program, then the United States would take them off the terrorism list. The North Koreans were supposed to make a full and accurate nuclear declaration; in fact, they only made a partial declaration. They only declared their plutonium. They didn't declare enrichment or any proliferation activities, and the United States allowed that partial declaration to take place. But then the United States said that we wouldn't take North Korea off the terrorism list until there was agreement on a verification protocol, and the North Koreans accused the United States of moving the goalpost, of changing the terms of the deal. They began to take steps to repair the facilities at Yongbyon as a way to pressure the United States.

I'm still a little unclear; do we now have a verification protocol?


We have a verification protocol on paper, but because the agreement doesn't specify-or at least the public documents don't specify-exactly what activities the North Koreans are prepared to take, I don't think we know for sure whether or not the United States will be able to do what is necessary to verify the North Korean claim of halting plutonium production.

Just to make clear, in addition to the public documents that have been released, there's an additional U.S.-North Korea joint document which is confidential. We don't know the substance of that, but it may contain a more detailed agreement on steps the United States wants to take in order to verify the halt in the plutonium program. But we'll find out, I think, in the coming weeks and months whether the North Koreans let the U.S. missions and scientists take the steps we believe are necessary.

And what are the negative aspects of this agreement?


Like most agreements with the North Koreans, it's only a half measure. It's only one step forward, and it doesn't address some of the more fundamental questions, like North Korea's uranium-enrichment program, how many weapons they have. And there's still the issue of actually dismantling and destroying their facilities, and then finally, of course, whether they're prepared to give up their nuclear weapons. So this is a very modest step forward. It's important to keep the process going, and that makes it easier for the next U.S. administration to carry on, but we shouldn't kid ourselves: This is only the very beginning of the toughest part of the negotiations.

So the new administration, what will they have to do?


Assuming that North Korea's plutonium declaration is verified, assuming that takes places over the next couple of months, the immediate challenge for the next administration is going to be to convince North Korea to make a declaration on uranium enrichment and on their proliferation activities. Because until you have that baseline it's very difficult to talk about further steps that would lead to the dismantlement of facilities and to a complete disarmament. And the North Koreans are going to make very lavish and extravagant demands in return, political concessions like normalizations of relations, signing a peace treaty to end the Korean War, and massive amounts of economic assistance. The next administration is going to have to deal with these really tough issues.

Some people might say having diplomatic relations wouldn't be such a bad idea-and a peace treaty ending the Korean War on the surface doesn't seem so bad. What's the problem there?


The Bush administration has taken the position that we won't sign a peace treaty or normalize relations until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons. I think that's actually a smart position to take because in the region, if the United States normalizes relations or signs a peace treaty while North Korea still has nuclear weapons, that will be seen by the Chinese and the Japanese and South Koreans as the United States basically accepting North Korea as a nuclear armed country, and that could have negative consequences.

This is a big issue in Japan because of the still unresolved issue which is very emotional in Japan of the dozen or so abductees who North Korea claims are all dead but people think may still be alive. Is this causing great problems in U.S.-Japanese relations?


It is, even though the Japanese knew that this might be coming. They're very disappointed, and again, it's going to be a challenge for the next administration to reassure the Japanese that we're going to take their interests into consideration, and in particular press the North Koreans to try to resolve or to make progress on the abductee issue. We also have a potential issue with the new South Korean government, which is taking a much harder line toward North Korea. And even though the South Korean government has welcomed this new agreement, there's some concern in Seoul that the United States will go too far in accommodating North Korea and rewarding North Korea without getting enough in return.

Now you've been involved in this field for how many years now, eighteen years or so, is that right?


Yes.

What's your personal feeling on this particular agreement? When we last talked on this in June you said it was a useful initial step. Is that still your view?

Yes, it's better to keep the process alive, and the only way to keep it alive is by these kind of very small, incremental measures which partially address issues. I don't think there's a grand bargain that can resolve North Korean nuclear issues in one fell swoop. It can only be addressed through these sort of smaller steps that hopefully move in the direction of ultimately getting rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons. Once the Bush administration made the decision to accept a partial declaration that only dealt with plutonium, it was inevitable that the verification protocol would have to focus on plutonium and leave for the future the question of how you deal with uranium enrichment and proliferation and dismantlement and ultimately getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Have you got any better idea of what's happening with Kim Jong-Il? I know he was shown in an undated picture the other day, but any word among experts on whether he's still ill or what?


Just based on discussions I've had with Chinese and South Koreans, there does seem to be a consensus that he had some kind of a health problem in August. He appears to be back in the saddle and appears to be running the country, but there is a sense among experts that if he were to die, the future of North Korea would be uncertain. There might be a power struggle, there might even be a collapse of government authority, and governments are thinking about their options if we're faced with that kind of instability in North Korea.

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