Commentary

U.S. Should Be Suspicious of N. Korea’s Nuclear Concessions

The six-party talks on the North Korea nuclear crisis have averted collapse and produced a joint statement on various principles. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill describes the statement as a “win-win situation” and “a good agreement for all of us.” Delegates to the talks reportedly gave a standing ovation when the breakthrough occurred.

The initial agreement is certainly better than if the talks had ended in failure. Nevertheless, with respect to any negotiated settlement, the devil is in the details — and this agreement leaves much unanswered. That, combined with Pyongyang’s record of breaking nuclear accords, means we need to be skeptical.

True, North Korea made important concessions. Pyongyang promised to give up its nuclear weapons program, to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and to allow international inspectors to return to the country to verify compliance. The United States and the other parties (Japan, China, Russia and South Korea) likewise made significant concessions. They agreed to provide Pyongyang with energy assistance, security guarantees (including Washington’s pledge to respect North Korea’s sovereignty), and in the cases of Japan and the United States, to move toward the normalization of relations.

These were all constructive steps by both sides. We now have the skeleton of an agreement to resolve the nuclear crisis. The next round of six-party talks, scheduled for November, will have to fill in the details if this process is to produce meaningful results.

There are numerous aspects to address. At present, it is not clear when North Korea will fulfill its promise to rejoin the NPT and allow inspectors to return to the Yongbyon reactor complex to confirm that there is no longer any diversion of plutonium to build nuclear weapons. There is also no clarity about how much latitude the inspectors will have to perform their functions.

The agreement is silent about whether the concessions on energy aid and other matters by the United States and the other parties will coincide with North Korea’s actions or whether the North will have to clearly fulfill its commitments before the concessions kick in. Finally, the most contentious issue in the talks — North Korea’s insistence that it receive proliferation-resistant light water reactors for a peaceful nuclear power-generation program if it renounced its ambitions for nuclear weapons — was simply put off for discussion at “an appropriate time.” Clearly, that matter will have to be addressed at some point if the crisis is going to be resolved.

The lack of crucial details in the current agreement is one reason for holding off on the applause. Another is North Korea’s dismal track record on nuclear accords. The brutal reality is that Pyongyang has violated every agreement it ever signed on nuclear issues. Although it joined the NPT, it violated that agreement on two occasions — in the early 1990s and again at the beginning of the current crisis in 2002 — before withdrawing entirely from the treaty. Pyongyang issued a joint declaration with Seoul to keep the Korean Peninsula non-nuclear, only to repudiate that declaration in 2003. And, of course, the United States believed that it had resolved the first North Korea nuclear crisis when it concluded the 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance and other concessions. North Korea’s violation of that agreement triggered the current crisis.

Given that record of cheating, we have ample reason to be cautious about a rather vague new agreement. All Americans who value peace and stability in East Asia hope that the apparent breakthrough in the negotiations will be the first step toward Washington’s goal of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to Pyongyang’s quest for nuclear weapons. But only time will tell if that is the case or whether the agreement becomes merely the latest instance in North Korea’s long record of making commitments to remain non-nuclear only to violate those commitments whenever it becomes convenient.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of six books and the editor of 10 books on international affairs.