With many of the details shrouded in mystery, there is plenty of reason for skepticism about the U.S.-North Korean agreement reached Wednesday on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. At the six-party talks in Beijing, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon by the end of the year in a process that will be overseen by a U.S.-led international team. “North Korea also committed not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how beyond its borders,” President Bush said. “It will provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs, nuclear-weapons programs, materials and any proliferation activity.”
In exchange for North Korea’s agreement to dismantle these programs, it will receive 900,000 of the 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil from the United States and other countries it was promised in February, when Washington and Pyongyang first announced a deal to dismantle North Korean nuclear facilities. North Korea got the first 100,000 tons when it disabled its nuclear facility at Yongbyon. The concept of “disabling” the facility, Mr. Hill said, is to make it difficult for North Korea to abruptly kick out Americans and other international inspectors and restart the reactor.
But the State Department wants to go “from disabling to complete dismantling, where you take it apart, take it out of the country, and get rid of the thing,” he added. In short, what Mr. Hill appears to be suggesting is that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il would do to his nuclear program what Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi started doing back in December 2003: dismantling his nuclear weapons programs and allowing the United States to take it out of Libya. The administration’s goal is commendable; the question is whether it has much of a basis in reality. Mr. Gadhafi, despite decades of research and planning, never had an atomic bomb. North Korea, by contrast, is believed to have produced a dozen or more atomic devices. In a closed, totalitarian society like North Korea, there is no way of knowing whether it has covert nuclear programs in existence or how extensive they may be.
Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton told The Washington Times yesterday that Yongbyon “is an old facility at or near the end of its useful life.” Therefore, North Korea’s decision to give up that reactor “doesn’t amount to much of a concession.” The real issue, he said, is whether Yongbyon is the entire North Korean nuclear program, or whether there are other programs we don’t know about. Yet the agreement announced Wednesday “contains no verification provision” dealing with nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon.
But given North Korea’s record of cheating and duplicity, it is essential to be able to verify any agreement signed with that regime. In 1998, for example, North Korea tested a Taepo-Dong missile, then it declared a moratorium on launch-testing from its own territory, winning a huge PR victory. The United States subsequently learned that North Korea never stopped its missile development efforts; instead, it benefited from its collaboration with Iran, which uses essentially the same technology in its missile programs. North Korea’s readiness to “outsource” its weapons programs to rogue-state allies is particularly worrisome in the context of reports that Israel’s Sept. 6 military strike against Syria was directed at a site where North Korea and Syria were collaborating on ballistic missiles or nuclear-weapons-related technology. Administration officials say they will insist that North Korea get out of the proliferation business, and that’s good to hear. The key question is whether, when push comes to shove, the administration would be prepared to abandon the deal should Kim Jong-Il threaten to walk away, if and when Washington tries to hold him accountable.
The holes in Wednesday’s nuclear accord with North Korea are so great that left-of-center critics of the Bush administration are expressing reservations. Gary Samore, a former Clinton administration official currently at the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed concern over the “lack of a process” to verify the declaration on North Korea’s nuclear programs. Jack Pritchard, a former negotiator with North Korea during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said North Korea “thinks they can ask for and get what they want from the Bush administration” because of its eagerness to achieve diplomatic success.
With hawks like Mr. Bolton and doves like Mr. Samore and Mr. Pritchard ending up on the same side, Congress would do well to take a long, careful look at the merits of the U.S. agreement with North Korea.