Living with a nuclear North Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2005, 12:00am

All participants in the six-party talks - including North Korea - say the goal is making the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons. Don't bet on it. An unblinkered assessment of the various interests forces one conclusion: the world must prepare for a 'grey' North Korea, a nation with a suspected, but unconfirmed, limited nuclear capability.

This conclusion is based on three premises. First, Pyongyang will do everything possible to preserve some of its nuclear weapons capability. For more than four decades, it has sought to acquire or develop such weapons. This interest is understandable, at least from a North Korean perspective: Pyongyang was threatened by the United States with atomic bombs during the Korean war. Nuclear weapons are also seen by the North's strategists as the guarantor of regime survival.

Second, despite their rhetorical commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, neither China nor South Korea is ready to enforce the strict verification regime required to eliminate all the North's weapons. Neither country wants North Korea to demonstrate conclusively that it has such weapons; neither, however, do they want to destabilise Pyongyang by pushing it too hard to denuclearise.

There are three ways North Korea could have developed nuclear weapons. The first is with fissile material generated before the signing of the Agreed Framework in 1994. Most intelligence agencies estimate this is enough for one to four weapons. The second source is the 8,000 fuel rods frozen by the framework, and recently reprocessed by the North. The third is the enriched uranium programme that the US has charged the North with developing in violation of the framework.

North Korea is probably ready to give up the second and third sources, but not the first. China and South Korea are likely to accept this: combine the North's belief in the value of such weapons with Chinese and South Korean reluctance to push Pyongyang to the brink, and you have the basis for a compromise. Since China has a permanent veto in the UN Security Council, the threat of international sanctions looks toothless.

Thus, the third critical point: the US is going to have to accept this, too. China, South Korea and Russia will not back Washington's demand for 'complete verifiable' nuclear disarmament. So it is Washington, not Pyongyang, that risks isolation by pushing too hard. Doing so could alienate South Korea and marginalise the US on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia - the real strategic prize. Moreover, accepting the ambiguity surrounding the original plutonium is merely going back to the status quo of the Agreed Framework.

By this logic, a six-party agreement would be a gradual process that dismantles the North Korean nuclear infrastructure. This would be matched by economic aid from the South, humanitarian assistance from other parties and diplomatic recognition from the US.

The chief concern is whether this deal would be consistent with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Reportedly, the International Atomic Energy Agency will have difficulty providing a complete accounting of North Korea's oldest plutonium stocks. That fudge could preserve the credibility of the agency and the treaty, and discourage other countries from trying to copy North Korea.

This is not a happy solution, but it is, by this logic, the best and most realistic one available. In many ways, it is an updated Agreed Framework. The critical question is whether any such deal can be sold in the US.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank