Flawed deal keeps Kim ahead of the pack

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2007, 12:00am

Euphoria over the deal for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons is vanishing quickly, on sober second thoughts. No sooner had the envoys at the six-party talks in Beijing clasped hands over the signing of the agreement, this week, than doubts arose over what North Korea would do - and what the other five parties would give in exchange. The bottom line is that North Korea stands to receive a huge amount of energy aid without getting around to forfeiting its membership in the nuclear power club.

The flaws in the agreement begin with North Korea's promise to 'freeze' the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, where it has produced anywhere from six to a dozen nuclear warheads with plutonium at their core. The deal calls for Pyongyang to 'invite' inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify compliance within 60 days, in return for which North Korea is to get 50,000 tonnes of emergency fuel.

The problem here is obvious: North Korean scientists and engineers will have time to remove critical items, including warheads - if they haven't done so already. And it's not at all likely that the inspectors will be able to wander around North Korea's mountains and valleys looking for them. Does the US envoy, Christopher Hill, believe inspectors will go near the redoubt where North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October?

The deal gets murkier still as the US puts the heat on North Korea to go beyond that initial stage - to reveal the full content of its nuclear programme and disable everything in return for 950,000 tonnes more in energy aid. How can the US get Pyongyang to confess to an array of facilities - some identified by spy satellites, but most of them invisible - when North Korea refuses to acknowledge any programme apart from the one at Yongbyon? The agreement promises sanctimoniously that North Korea 'will discuss with other parties a list of all its nuclear programmes ... including plutonium extracted from used-fuel rods'. But this statement, far from setting out a real deal, is a cover-up.

Pyongyang proudly boasted of resuming the production of plutonium for nuclear warheads at Yongbyon after the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement. But it has repeatedly denied developing warheads with highly enriched uranium. It was the revelation of the uranium programme in 2002 that led the US to cancel heavy-oil shipments, North Korea to expel IAEA inspectors from Yongbyon and a US-led consortium to stop building twin, light-water nuclear energy reactors - all part of the 1994 framework.

Why did Mr Hill, at the Beijing talks, not insist on having uranium cited along with plutonium in the new agreement? The answer is that North Korea would never have gone along with any deal that mentioned the uranium programme. And Mr Hill was under heavy pressure, from his bosses in Washington as much as others in the talks - notably China and South Korea - to get something on paper. Not that Mr Hill dropped the topic: he promised to keep pursuing the uranium issue - hardly the same as seeing it in writing.

North Korea is not about to list everything else it's doing, either. Does anyone believe that leader Kim Jong-il will hand over his nuclear stockpile and say, 'Ok, it was nice to be a nuclear power, but now we're getting out of the nuclear arms race'? Pyongyang has signalled what it thinks of the agreement, saying the deal provides for only 'temporary suspension' of work at Yongbyon. Any time the consortium baulks at coming through with enormous quantities of energy, production may resume while Mr Kim holds out the threat of another nuclear test.

Ominously, however, one country did baulk at going along with all provisions of the deal. Japan opted out of joining the others in providing aid as long as North Korea fails to come clean on Japanese people it kidnapped. Tokyo's tough position suggests the harshness of the confrontation between Japan and North Korea - and the alienation of Japan from the countries that it ruled until the end of the second world war. Tokyo's decision to remain aloof is a reminder of historic regional rivalries - quite aside from the confrontation of forces on the Korean Peninsula - that could scuttle the deal.

The agreement includes other concessions to North Korean demands. Washington is committed to review the North's inclusion on the US State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism, and to talk about opening diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Such matters rank high on North Korea's wish list. At the same time, the US Treasury Department promises to 'review' its blacklisting of Macau's Banco Delta Asia, said to be a conduit for fake US$100 notes counterfeited in Pyongyang. The North would not have signed on to anything without this assurance of business as usual through Macau.

The US position is further weakened by the eagerness of its South Korean ally to play into the North's hands. Seoul, anxious to go on with reconciliation with the North, will resume shipments of rice, fertiliser and cement in the near future - for the first time since cutting them all off in July after Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles. North Korea punished the South by stopping inter-Korean family reunions and cancelling North-South talks.

The US and South Korea have no reason to respond so generously until or unless the North really does get rid of its nuclear weapons. They might do well to follow Japan's example - and not give North Korea anything until it has shown the agreement is more than a game in which the North can go on building up its military power in defiance of the great powers pursuing peace in the region.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals