PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2002, 12:00am

WHAT IS THE STATUS of the Agreed Framework, signed by North Korea and the United States in 1994? Rhetoric employed by both countries suggests that the agreement is null and void because of the other side's actions. However, their actions suggest otherwise.

The decision by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation last week to suspend heavy fuel oil deliveries to North Korea marks another step in the gradual unravelling of the agreement, which calls for the delivery of such oil to offset the energy lost due to the freezing of North Korea's graphite-moderated reactors.

The suspension, beginning next month, was in response to North Korea's disclosure that it had embarked on a uranium-enrichment nuclear programme. However, while it was meant to punish North Korea, it was not at all clear that it signalled the end of the Agreed Framework itself.

North Korea had pointed to the years-long delay in the construction of two light-water reactors, which the United States had agreed to turn over to North Korea to compensate it for the loss of its graphite reactors. In addition, other provisions of the agreement, arguably much more important to North Korea, were never implemented. These include full normalisation of political and economic relations and a formal reassurance by Washington that it would not use nuclear weapons against North Korea.

Despite all the problems with the Agreed Framework, it is clear that both sides wish to see it remain in place or, at least, as many components of the framework as possible.

Seeking a peaceful resolution

Two US allies, South Korea and Japan, are already on record as wanting to keep the Agreed Framework while seeking a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem.

Other nations, such as Russia and China, have also voiced their concern. The Russian foreign ministry, before the decision to suspend oil deliveries, issued a statement urging all 'interested sides, including the participants in the 1994 agreement, to show restraint and continue to fulfil the international obligations they took on'. China's position, stated repeatedly, is that the framework has played a positive role in maintaining peace and stability and its hope is that the US and North Korea 'could implement the agreement in earnest'.

Even North Korea has not actively acted to dismantle the agreement. So far, it has been content to have inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency continue to conduct inspections to ensure that Pyongyang is not extracting plutonium from the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods stored at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

So far, the US and its allies have not decided to halt construction of the two light-water reactors in North Korea. If work was to stop, it would certainly signal the death of the Agreed Framework, which was designed to accomplish a particular task: to freeze North Korea's plutonium-producing facilities.

This freeze continues, but, if Washington's position is that the agreement is now null and void, there would be nothing to keep North Korea from requesting the departure of the inspectors so it can go back to the business of extracting plutonium and producing nuclear bombs.

Self-imposed moratorium

Another danger is that North Korea may end its self-imposed moratorium on the testing of ballistic missiles. The stakes, therefore, are extremely high.

Despite the North Koreans' rhetoric regarding the Agreed Framework, they too are clearly eager to have the agreement reaffirmed. Donald Gregg, a former US ambassador to South Korea who visited Pyongyang recently, quoted a North Korean official as saying that the Agreed Framework was 'hanging by a thread'. Mr Gregg, at a press conference, interpreted this to mean that the agreement was in a very tenuous state, 'but that the North Koreans were still supporting it'.

North Korea has made it clear its primary concerns are to have its sovereignty recognised and its security ensured. The message has evidently got through to the US. President George W. Bush, the day after the suspension of fuel oil deliveries was announced, declared that the US had 'no intention of invading North Korea'. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Tuesday the US recognised North Korea 'as a sovereign nation' and had 'no hostile intent towards North Korea'.

Thus, it seems, the US is willing to bestow on North Korea what it desires. The two sides just need to sit down and work out the details.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator