Ralph C. Hassig and Kongdan Oh: Prospects for Ending North Korea's Nuclear Program

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ralph C. Hassig is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on
North Korea and an adjunct professor of psychology at the
University of Maryland University College. He is the co-
author, with Kongdan Oh, of North Korea through the Looking
Glass (Brookings, 2000). Kongdan Oh is a research staff
member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a non-
resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The
authors made a presentation on Sept. 7 to FPRI's Asia Study
Group. The views expressed in this enote are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of any
organizations with which the authors are affiliated. This
enote is available on line at www.fpri.org.]

North Korea's nuclear program got off to an early start with
Soviet assistance in the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, the Kim
regime was embarking on a nuclear weapons program with the
construction of a large reprocessing plant to make weapons-
grade plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. Meanwhile, Kim
Il Sung assured the international community that his country
had no intention of building a nuclear weapon, which he said
would be useless in the face of a massive American nuclear
arsenal. In the early 1990s, fearing that North Korea might
already have reprocessed sufficient plutonium for two small
nuclear devices, the United States began negotiating what
was called the "Agreed Framework," which would give North
Korea a couple of proliferation-resistant light-water
reactors (LWRs) and an annual delivery of a half million
barrels of heavy fuel oil (ostensibly to compensate
Pyongyang for energy forgone by halting construction of two
nuclear reactors) in return for a freeze on the North's
nuclear program. The two countries also agreed to move
gradually toward diplomatic normalization.

The LWR project fell far behind schedule. By 2002, one year
short of the projected completion date, only the support
buildings and reactor foundation had been completed.
Meanwhile, it appears that around 1996 the North Koreans
turned to an alternative means of securing weapons material
by secretly launching a uranium-enrichment program. When
they were confronted with evidence of this in October 2002,
they first admitted and then denied such a program existed.
The United States promptly stopped fuel oil deliveries and
ordered South Korean contractors to halt construction of the
LWRs. The North Koreans withdrew from the Nonproliferation
Treaty and began reprocessing spent fuel that had been in
storage since 1994, vowing to produce plutonium to increase
their "nuclear deterrent force."

By 2005, the North Koreans may have reprocessed sufficient
plutonium to make eight or nine nuclear weapons, and in
April of that year they told Selig Harrison, a visiting
American, that "It is too late for them [the United States]
to prevent us from making nuclear weapons, but it is not too
late to work out verifiable agreements to prevent any
proliferation." Otherwise, "The United States should
consider the danger that we could transfer nuclear weapons
to terrorists [and] that we have the ability to do so"
(Kyodo World Service, April 9, 2005). Throughout 2005 and
2006, the North Koreans boasted of increasing their
"deterrent force." On October 9, 2006, they conducted their
first nuclear test--although a very small one, to be sure.

The United States has been negotiating with North Korea for
over a decade, in two-party, three-party, four-party, and
most recently, six-party talks. The first round of six-party
talks (also including South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan)
convened in August 2003, a second round in February 2004,
and a third round in June 2004. Before the talks resumed for
a fourth round in July 2005, the North Koreans declared,
"Now that the DPRK has become a full-fledged nuclear weapons
state, the six-party talks should be disarmament talks where
the participating countries negotiate the issue on an equal
footing" (KCNA, March 31, 2005). After a fruitless fifth
round in November 2005, the North Koreans boycotted the

Before the first round of the talks convened, the North
Koreans warned that the talks would succeed only if the
United States made a "bold switchover" in its hostile policy
toward the DPRK. This broad demand has been fleshed out, at
different times, with specific demands for a non-aggression
treaty, full diplomatic relations, removal of the U.S.
"nuclear threat" (which seems to mean removal of all U.S.
nuclear weapons from the region and an end to the protection
provided to South Korea by the U.S. nuclear umbrella), a
withdrawal of all U.S. troops from South Korea, and
abrogation of the U.S.-ROK security treaty. In addition, the
North Koreans want U.S. restrictions on international trade
and investment with the DPRK lifted and a pledge that
Washington will not interfere in the DPRK's domestic
affairs, including its human rights policies. To judge by
past practice, more demands are likely to follow.

Except for Japan, the delegates to the six-party talks have
publicly taken the position that they held high hopes for a
negotiated nuclear settlement, but their calls for a
compromise solution suggest that China, Russia, and South
Korea would be satisfied with another nuclear freeze. It is
understandable that neighboring countries would prefer to
let North Korea have a residual nuclear force rather than
risk precipitating another Korean War. In any case, because
Japan and the United States would be the most likely targets
of Kim's nuclear weapons, the security issues for them are
somewhat different than they are for the other six-party
delegate states.

The Bush administration initially called for a "complete,
verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of the North Korean
nuclear weapons program, but because no one can imagine how
to verify such an agreement, Washington simply stipulated
that North Korea abandon both its civilian and military
nuclear programs. Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's head delegate
to the talks, responded, "Does it make sense if our country,
not a war loser or a criminal country, should be denied
peaceful nuclear activities?" (Yonhap News Agency, August 4,
2005). There is obviously a difference of opinion between
Washington and Pyongyang as to whether the DPRK is a
criminal state.

In the 1994 Agreed Framework, the North Koreans were
permitted to postpone a full accounting of their nuclear
program until the LWRs had been constructed. Whether
Washington really expected the agreement to rid North Korea
of its nuclear weapons capability or whether the agreement
was simply an expedient means to freeze the program until
North Korea collapsed under the weight of its own political
and economic problems is still being debated. In hindsight,
it is evident that the agreement gave Kim Jong Il, who was
recovering from the death of his father, several years to
consolidate his rule. The defense sometimes offered for the
1994 agreement is that without it, North Korea would have
accumulated a much larger nuclear weapons arsenal than it
now has, but this argument can be countered with the
argument that the Kim regime's future might have been very
different without political support and economic aid from
the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

On September 19, 2004, in a joint statement signed by the
six parties, the DPRK "committed to abandoning all nuclear
weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an
early date" to the Nonproliferation Treaty, while insisting
on "the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy." On the
issue of North Korea's receiving LWRs, which the United
States adamantly opposed, the statement said that the
parties "expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an
appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water
reactors to the DPRK."

The hollowness of the agreement was self-evident, with its
reference to "early dates" and "appropriate times," and to
make matters worse, first the Americans and then the North
Koreans rushed to issue statements that effectively gutted
the statement, with the United States saying that discussion
of building LWRs could not begin until it was verified that
the North Koreans had eliminated their nuclear program, and
the North Koreans cautioning that "The U.S. should not even
dream of the issue of the DPRK's dismantlement of its
nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs" (Korean Central
News Agency, Sept. 19, 2005).

Meanwhile, a U.S. inter-agency investigation of North Korean
counterfeiting and money laundering culminated in the
Treasury Department's issuance of a ruling that the Banco
Delta Asia in Macao, much favored by North Koreans, was a
"primary money laundering concern." BDA froze $24 million in
North Korean funds, and banks around the world took the hint
and avoided doing business with the North Koreans. Since
then, North Korea's precondition for returning to the talks
has been a lifting of U.S. sanctions on the bank.

The Kim Jong Il regime justifies having a nuclear weapons
program by claiming that its sole purpose is to deter a U.S.
attack. Because such an attack would likely trigger a second
Korean War, the North Koreans further claim that their
nuclear weapons actually protect all Koreans on the
peninsula. It would seem that if the United States signed a
non-aggression pact and peace treaty and normalized
diplomatic relations with the Kim regime, North Korea would
no longer need a nuclear deterrent.

Yet it is difficult to find any American experts on North
Korea who believe that the Kim regime would completely
abandon its nuclear weapons program no matter what
agreements were signed or inducements offered. Furthermore,
even if North Korea did agree to dismantle its nuclear
weapons program, including the uranium-enrichment program it
denies having, verification would be virtually impossible
given the secrecy that is the hallmark of the North Korean
state. Agreeing to another nuclear freeze would reduce the
amount of nuclear material North Korea can accumulate in the
coming years, but such an agreement would also strengthen
the Kim regime and perhaps encourage it to cultivate other
threats. In the absence of an agreement, North Korea is
likely to continue promoting its nuclear weapons program.

Whether talks with North Korea are bilateral or multilateral
is not the issue: markedly different perspectives, policies,
and values are what prevent a negotiated settlement from
being reached. Nevertheless, we believe that talks with
North Korea should be pursued, if for no other reason than
to keep lines of communication open. The Bush administration
is correct in its assessment that regime change in North
Korea is the only way to eliminate the North Korean nuclear
weapons program. Calling the goal "regime behavior change"
might make it more politically acceptable, but since the
regime has been relying on its military for over half a
century to keep the Kims in power, behavior change is
unlikely to happen.

The regime can be changed by foreign military intervention
or by domestic instability, perhaps pushed along by foreign
influences, and there are undoubtedly risks in changing a
regime, as the Iraq case demonstrates. A prudent and
responsible way to work toward regime change is to devote
more resources toward convincing the North Korean people
that their own government is their worst enemy. This will
take time, but if the United States had started such an
operation in 1994, instead of throwing support to the Kim
regime, the job might already have been done.

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