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Romberg: North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Key Issue to Be Resolved

Interviewee: Alan D. Romberg, Senior Associate and Director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 18, 2007

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Alan D. Romberg, a long-time expert on North Korea in the State Department, says key to the February agreement on halting North Korea’s nuclear program is the “permanent disablement” of the nuclear facilities it has already produced. He says the North will want a number of conditions met, including its removal from the U.S. terrorism list. Romberg adds: “They may well want something more forthcoming than they’ve gotten so far on a future light-water reactor, and they may want to get something on future access by North Korea to the international financial system.”

As part of the agreement at the Six-Party talks in Beijing last February, North Korea closed down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and it’s promising to close all its nuclear facilities in about six months. Why this sort of goodwill coming out of North Korea now?

First of all, I think you have to take account of the fact [that] the statement about willingness to close down within five or six months, or even within the year—which was made from the North Korean delegate, Kim Kye Gwan, directly to the South Korean delegate, Chun Yung Woo—has not been reported as coming out of the Six-Party talks yet. And second, the issues that are to be discussed with respect to Phase Two of the agreement last February are probably more difficult than they appear on the surface in terms of the forthcomingness you’re describing.

One issue has to do with the obligation of North Korea to make a “full declaration” of its nuclear programs. Obviously the [hitherto secret] uranium-enrichment issue is front and center there, and no one quite knows yet what the North Koreans have in mind when they tell people this can be satisfactorily handled.

Second, there is a question about how nuclear weapons or explosive devices are really going to be handled here. In the story out of Beijing this morning, the South Korean delegate, Chun Yung Woo, says that everything, including weapons or devices, is to be shutdown. The U.S. negotiator, Ambassador Christopher Hill, is a little less categorical.  He notes there is an issue of delivery systems that haven’t been tested and whether they’re involved. So I think all of that remains to be seen in terms of the declaration. Clearly all fissile material, whether in explosive devices or not, will have to be included [for] the U.S. and others to be satisfied.

My guess is that the rub will come when the parties talk about what it is that North Korea gets in return. In the February agreement, the United States pledged to begin to take steps to remove North Korea from the list of state-sponsored terrorism. The United States said it would advance the process of removing the restrictions on North Korea under the [World War I-era] Trading with the Enemy Act. My guess is that in return for permanent disablement of nuclear materials and weapons, the North will want North Korea removed from the terrorism list, they will want the [World War I-era] Trading with the Enemy Act restrictions taken away. They may well want something more forthcoming than they’ve gotten so far on a future light-water reactor, and they may want to get something on future access by North Korea to the international financial system.

Are the North Koreans also looking for a peace treaty?

I think the North Koreans at the end of the day certainly want a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War. The agreements in September 2005, and even in February of 2007, call for parallel permanent peace talks by the appropriate parties, which means the two Koreas, the United States, and China. And the United States has gotten much more interested in beginning those talks in the period immediately ahead. Two things about that, however: One is that it is inconceivable, and the United States has made that pretty clear, that such peace talks could be concluded before the nuclear issue is resolved. Second, it isn’t entirely clear whether North Korea really wants to engage in permanent peace talks at this stage in that format. That remains to be seen. They have at least in some conversations expressed less enthusiasm about proceeding with permanent peace talks than people might have anticipated.

Interesting. In the past, peace talks were prevented because the North Koreans did not want to include the South Koreans, right?

Yes, but that seems now to be largely a thing of the past. One has to say that in the North, in the nuclear talks, and I would argue probably in peace talks, the North Koreans will look at the United States as their principal counterpart. The announcement from Pyongyang about the departure of their delegation to these talks in Beijing that are currently going on is very interesting. It was very brief, and it said the delegation to the U.S.-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] nuclear talks and to the Six-Party talks was departing. They have been fairly consistent in trying to say this is primarily a U.S.-DPRK issue. While they have now pretty clearly agreed that South Korea is a legitimate party to permanent peace talks, again, I think the principal objective here is transformation of the relationship with the United States and therefore, in the peace process, having something bilateral between the U.S. and the DPRK, probably as part of a larger package, so it wouldn’t be a standalone thing, but it would be a bilateral element, I would think.

There’s been some speculation that these latest turns are coming because the North Koreans want to get this all done before there’s a change in administration. Do you think they watch the American election system that closely?

I think they do watch the American system closely. I have been saying that I think they have to contemplate the importance of that change, and that it would make sense from their point of view to adopt the posture you just cited, which is to try to get the full deal done while George Bush is still in office. Why? Because I think that the successor government of the United States of whatever political party is not going to be able to be more flexible. I haven’t heard any Democrats, for example, say that at the end of the day, the requirements for resolution of the nuclear issue are any softer than what this administration has been calling for.

It would be interesting if North Korea did enter the “family of nations.”

It would. It would be an important development. But I think you have to keep in mind that first of all, they separated out the initial two phases—that is, the closing of the Yongbyon facilities and then the declaration and the disablement of those nuclear facilities—from anything having to do with nuclear weapons. And I think that is not without enormous significance. They obviously look at the latter issue—the weapons issue—as something that has to be connected if they’re going to do it, to a transformation of the relationship with the United States where they can say the United States is no longer hostile to them. I don’t think any of us can be confident that they really are prepared to give up their weapons.

One of the arguments that a lot of us have been making over the last several years is that unless you try, you won’t know that. We’re now trying, and so sooner rather than later, that is next year, we may get a better idea of how serious the North is of actually trading off its weapons program for genuine transformation of relationships and entry of North Korea, as you put it, in to the family of nations.

What do you think transformed the administration’s negotiating policy from not talking to the North Koreans?

I don’t know. But I can speculate there are a few factors. One is a couple of key opponents of serious negotiating have left the administration. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton are among them. Second, perhaps there was the persuasiveness of the argument that was being made by [Ambassador] Chris Hill. The logic of trying is quite strong, and it may be that the president finally felt that if he could get a success here that that would be a very good thing to do. I think the issue all along has been the president’s position, and up until last fall, he was unwilling, in my judgment, to really have a serious negotiation where you trade things of value for things of value.

Another key factor here, no doubt, was the North Korean nuclear explosion in October 2006. Had we had serious negotiations for the years prior to that we might not have gotten to that point. It’s a bad lesson to teach to people that if you set off nuclear devices, you can get a serious negotiation with the United States. But it certainly is better to negotiate now than not to negotiate.

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