- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

Although it has identified North Korea as part of a global "axis of evil," President Bush's national security team has failed to develop a coherent and consistent strategy to deal with Pyongyang's destabilizing proliferation behavior. For months, U.S. policymakers have made token efforts to engage the North in a pragmatic dialogue and have emphasized strong words and accusations, yielding few if any positive results.
Upon its arrival in office, the administration suspended ongoing security discussions with the North Korean regime pending a policy review. The aborted dialogue had focused on ensuring implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework to check Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and a new agreement to permanently and verifiably freeze its missile program. The chance for a renewal of talks was further delayed when the president repeated his "axis of evil" remarks in a February speech in Seoul and the North perpetrated an unprovoked attack on a South Korean naval vessel this past June.
Recently, however, the Bush administration made a subtle, but very important gesture of support for the Agreed Framework. U.S. envoy Jack Pritchard attended an Aug. 7 ceremony in Kumho, North Korea, to mark the pouring of the concrete foundation of the first nuclear reactor to be provided under the landmark U.S.-North Korean pact known as the Agreed Framework. Mr. Pritchard said the groundbreaking ceremony is "hard evidence" that Washington intends to fulfill its obligations under a 1994 agreement with North Korea. He also stated that the U.S. intends to keep its end of the bargain and that "it is now time for [North Korea] to cooperate with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] and to come into compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Concluded in October 1994, the Agreed Framework ended a tense standoff resulting from the discovery that Pyongyang was diverting plutonium from its graphite nuclear reactors as part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program a clear violation of its legal commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Agreed Framework calls upon North Korea to "freeze its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities and eventually dismantle these reactors and related facilities." North Korea is also obligated to accept IAEA inspectors to investigate its declared and undeclared nuclear-capable facilities. In return, the United States agreed to help build two light-water reactors (which are less susceptible to diversion) and supply North Korea with heavy oil for heating and energy production.
Has the administration finally realized that pragmatic diplomacy and engagement with North Korea is a better way to curb nuclear proliferation than simply pointing fingers? Apparently not. Hard-liners inside the administration and on Capitol Hill continue to do their best to undermine the Agreed Framework and a resumption of the dialogue with North Korea.
On Thursday,Undersecretary of State John Bolton delivered a new broadside against Pyongyang, recounting the DPRK's proliferation record and accusing North Korea of refusing to allow additional IAEA inspections. The hard-line speech has already irritated the South Korean Foreign Ministry, which is concerned that it will negatively affect the U.S.North Korean dialogue, as well as diplomacy between the North and South.
A few on Capitol Hill would go further. They are unwisely calling upon the Bush administration to cut off all U.S. support for Agreed Framework implementation now. They erroneously argue that Pyongyang is in violation of the agreement because it has not yet allowed inspectors from the IAEA to investigate all of its nuclear-capable facilities. However, the Agreed Framework actually states that North Korea "will come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA" when "a significant portion of the [light water reactor] project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components." Construction of the reactors will not reach this stage for approximately three years.
Some technical experts point out that the two new reactors to be provided to North Korea can generate plutonium for their nuclear weapons program. While these light-water nuclear reactors are not the ideal method of delivering electricity to a country like North Korea (even under international safeguards), the risk that North Korea can use the radioactive material in the spent fuel is considerably lower than with the graphite reactors. In any case, according to the terms of the Agreed Framework, the North will not have the key nuclear reactor components until inspections verify that North Korea is not diverting nuclear material for a weapons program.
Without launching new accusations or threatening an end to cooperation, the Bush team should make it clear the U.S. is committed to completing the reactor project so long as North Korea fulfills its part of the agreement. A possible visit by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang later this year could get U.S. policy back on track and lead to progress on the Agreed Framework and renewed talks on a permanent and verifiable freeze of Pyonyang's missile program.
Diplomacy and engagement is far more likely to achieve results than more diatribes from Mr. Bolton. Though calling North Korea "evil" may appease congressional hard-liners, it does nothing to help the administration fulfill its real world security responsibilities on the Korean Peninsula.
The secretary of state and the White House must do a better job of holding Mr. Bolton in check in order to avoid another round of harsh recriminations and lost opportunities.
If the Bush team fails to deliver, we may see a new version of the tense standoff of the early 1990s, possibly with a nuclear-armed North Korea. The consequences of such a confrontation for the people of North and South Korea, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula, and regional stability could be disastrous.
The Agreed Framework has frozen Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and provided a basis for engaging North Korea on their ballistic missile program and other issues of concern that are certain to arise in North Korea. The agreement and the policy of engagement that it represents may be imperfect, but it is an indispensable part of achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Paul Kerr is a nonproliferation analyst for the Arms Control Association.

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