The agreement announced yesterday between the United States and North
Korea has been greeted with both cheers
and jeers. Optimists
see this latest development as a small, necessary first step on the path toward a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons -- and this, for a
relatively modest amount of aid. Pessimists see it as just more of the same -- yet another ploy by a corrupt, failed and cynical North Korean
leadership making meaningless commitments in exchange for badly needed food.
Here is a guest post from Philip Yun, executive director of
the Ploughshares Fund and a former advisor to the
State Department during talks with North Korea from 1998-2001. Yun sees the
significance of the agreement in the surprisingly number of differences in the
statements issued by the United States and the DPRK.
Normally, the U.S. State
Department announcement and the DPRK
Foreign Ministry statement should be almost the same, as language and
details are typically coordinated before
final announcements are made. The two documents' striking discrepancies and
omissions in significant places making me wonder if a "meeting of the minds"
actually took place:
"While productive dialogues continue." The DPRK
agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile activity, and
uranium enrichment activity at their main reactor site in Yongbyon, as well as
IAEA monitoring of uranium enrichment activities "while productive dialogues
continue." The U.S. statement makes no mention of this qualifier.
Did North Korea just add this unilaterally?
No starting date. The three moratoriums are
potentially significant because they concretely limit North Korea's ability
(for as long as the moratorium is in place) to produce more fissile material,
improve its weapons design through miniaturization and refine its weapons
delivery systems. In exchange, the United States agreed to provide 240,000 metric
tons of nutritional biscuits. But when do the moratoriums take
place? And how will the food be delivered and under what
conditions? The U.S. statement specifically refers to "intensive
monitoring" of this aid, but the DPRK statement bears no mention of such
What about the other facilities? Many experts believe
that North Korea has uranium enrichment facilities in other locales, but an
initial reading of the statements appears to apply the moratorium to Yongbyon
only. Were there any understandings for other locations? If limited
to Yongbyon (which is start, but access to other sites inevitably remains a
major issue for both the United States and the North), when will the IAEA go to Yongbyon
and under what conditions?
What about that light water reactor? The DPRK
statement raises the issue of light water reactors (LWRs). The State
Department's version doesn't mention LWRs. The DRPK has been persistent through
the years about its demand and right to have an operational LWR, which the United States since 2003 has resisted or ignored -- LWRs were central to the U.S.-DPRK
nuclear deal of 1994 and a significant sticking point in negotiations of
September 2005 Joint Statement. Does this new agreement require North Korea to
stop its ongoing construction of a light water reactor at Yongbyon, which
according to the North, is for the production of electricity? Last year
at Fukushima we saw what can happen to a nuclear plant built with the best
materials and to the highest standards. Yongbyon is being constructed with far
lower standards: a similar disaster would be dire.
Will there be a peace treaty? Both statements
contain a reference to the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The State Department
and DPRK versions both say that they recognized the Armistice as "the
cornerstone of peace and stability;" but the DPRK added, "until the conclusion
of a peace treaty." The subject of a peace treaty and its impact has
posed a whole series of long-standing issues military, legal and
otherwise. This difference just adds to the overall need to clarify what
exactly was agreed to between the United States and the DPRK.
This latest news could be a very good sign that North
Korea's leadership is willing to make commitments. So long as China
continues to shield North Korea as it has, a concerted, sustained and focused
diplomatic push with North Korea appears to be the only way to move forward.
Having IAEA inspectors on the ground in North Korea would especially be
extremely useful -- rather than speculating about North Korean activity and
relying on rumor, we would have something more concrete to
consider. However, if progress is to be made, we have to avoid unpleasant surprises. The U.S.
must figure out a way to patch the holes that still seem to exist between the
two negotiating parties or this latest development may once again set
expectations too high. In short, the devil is in the details - and we had
better find out quickly what they are.