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September 19, 2005

Making Sense of Today's North Korea News
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Steve Clemons, who has actually been an Asia expert, describes today's news of a North Korea breakthrough as "a positive step but nowhere near an endgame."

He also recalls that we were nearing this point at the end of the Clinton Administration.  I believe that it was something very close to these terms on which the Bush people so embarrassingly turned their backs in the ABC (anything but clinton) period in 2001.

My beloved, a foreign policy amateur, actually had the best commentary I've heard:  these are the first fruits of appointing John Bolton to the UN, thus getting him out of Korea policy.  (As they used to say at Veterans Stadium in Philly:  "give that fan a contract!")

So now we've got the deal, maybe, but the North Koreans have had several more years to make bombs.  And we've got a lot fewer military options with which to confront Pyongyang, thanks to the size of our presence Iraq.  Still, the humanitarian and security situations in North Korea are too dire for (much) partisan hay-making.  So let's wish the highly-talented Ambassador Chris Hill all the best on this one. 

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North Korea insisted Tuesday it wont dismantle its nuclear weapons program until the U.S. give [Read More]

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In Monday's joint statement, North Korea reasserted its "right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy." But what such "peaceful" uses will entail has yet to be clearly and meaningfully defined by the six-states participating in the multilateral disarmament talks.

If the United States, China, Russia, China and Japan should allow North Korea to equate "peaceful uses of nuclear energy" with any or all of the following -- (1) uranium enrichment, (2) plutonium separation from reprocessed spent-nuclear fuel, (3) fabrication of HEU- or plutonium-based nuclear fuels -- as disarmament talks enter into the next phase, then in the long-term any accumulated stocks of plutonium (whether separated or still chemically/mechanically unseparated from spent nuclear fuel) or HEU (or both) by a "disarmed" North Korea will represent a continuing nuclear proliferation risk -- regardless of any agreements that Pyongyang might someday conclude with the IAEA to allow inspections for diversion of fissile material or, along the lines of the IAEA's Additional Protocol, for suspected undeclared nuclear facilities.

To put it another way: Under the assumption that North Korea that does implement a hammered-out nuclear-disarmament agreement, if this agreement should allow "peaceful uses of nuclear energy" to be interpreted to broadly include any enrichment or reprocessing, then it won't be the "materials unaccounted for" (MUF) or the "limits error in the materials unaccounted for" (LEMUF) -- in other words "diversion" of fissile material -- that will be the lingering proliferation problem with reard to North Korea, but rather Pyongyang's accumulated "materials accounted for" (MAF) stocks of fissile material that will pose the main long-term proliferation challenge to the IAEA and the international community.

IMO, the USG and like-minded nations absolutely must do much more to challenge the prevailing interpretation that "peaceful" nuclear activities covered under Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) include practically every "civilian" nuclear activity short of inserting shaped-fissile material in metallic form into the core of a nuclear explosive -- so long as such activities are declared to the IAEA.

The Iranian government continues to hold fast to this prevailing interpretation. No one should be surprised if the North Korean government should do the same in the days and months ahead. And if that happens, then the prospects for real deal here may severely diminish.

Plus ça change? Time will tell...

I appreciate the point Heather and Steven Clemons are making about North Korea and the likelihood that we are pretty much returning to where we were at the end of the Clinton era. I'm reminded of a situation in business where a manager creates a problem and then later gets credit for solving the problem largely because there's hardly anyone around to remember who created the problem in the first place!

Unfortunately, four years have been lost and matters have indeed changed. Here's a long-range question that may be coming on faster than any of us like: when it comes to foreign policy and the options available to put together useful policies, are alternative energy possibilities becoming more necessary as a way of weaning certain countries away from nuclear power and dealing with the growing tightness of oil supplies and the need to cut down on the multitude of problems associated with nuclear energy? As oil supplies tighten, I see a pressure for more nuclear power worldwide as well as a strong desire on the part of many countries to have some control of their energy future. Admittedly, at the moment, Iran and North Korea seem to want to have their cake and eat it too but I see this as an issue that cannot be ignored.

This take on North Korea belies reality. The 1994 agreement was at all times violated by North Korea. The main reason North Korea renounced the agreement was Japan and South Korea's failure to provide light water reactors. The present agreement comes out of a broad consensus by China, Russia, Japan, US, and South Korea that North Korea not have nuclear weapons. Even if the details are the same as some other "talks" from 2001, which I personally dispute, the broad regional consensus is both important and a strength to implementation.

There has never been a realistic military option to North Korea. Iraq is 100% meaningless in this regard. North Korea can destroy Seoul with artillery fire and there is nothing anyone can do to stop that.

Finally Chris Hill should, as you mention, get a lot of credit for this agreement as he's worked the issue hard and very well. From my perspective it was his getting China to be the party putting forth the exact wording that was the crucial point. Funny, but why the administration always got slammed for going multi-lateral on North Korea always bemused me.

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