"Here we go again," is the reaction from critics who view with skepticism the joint agreement reached in Beijing on Monday, at the conclusion of the fourth round of six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programs.
They are right to be worried about any new deal that echoes the mistakes the U.S. made in the Agreed Framework a decade ago in 1994, when the first standoff over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons programs elicited a crisis. At that time, Washington signed a bilateral agreement with Pyongyang in which it agreed to provide the energy-starved North with two light-water reactors through an international consortium known as the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, in exchange for a freeze on a plutonium-processing facility at Yongbyon. The folly of this deal became all too apparent when Washington confronted Pyongyang in 2002 over its clandestine pursuit of a highly enriched uranium weapons program.
But this time, the skeptics may have to reserve their criticism of the Sept. 19 Beijing agreement at least until the next round of talks, scheduled for November, has had time to play out. This is because a careful examination of the agreement reveals that Washington has achieved the upper hand for the first time in the two-year long six-party talks -- which bring together the U.S., the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia -- by wringing an important concession from Pyongyang, while conceding little in return.
The most significant part of the agreement was North Korea's "commitment to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return at an early date to the Nonproliferation Treaty and to IAEA safeguards." A statement that both Koreas would return to the "observation" and "implementation of the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" was also included in the statement, which is critical because it allows for the inclusion of all North Korean nuclear programs, plutonium and uranium. Pyongyang's insistence on excluding uranium had been a key sticking point in previous rounds of talks. In other words, North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the country is officially known, has finally conceded the U.S. principle of CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement).
Critics of the agreement are likely to be even more concerned about the inclusion of the statement that "the DPRK has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy," and that the parties have "agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactor to the DPRK." North Korea's demand for the provision of light-water reactors before it would take any action to dismantle its nuclear programs had been the key issue of impasse with the U.S., with Washington rightly rejecting this as a nonstarter. But again careful scrutiny of the wording shows that, in reality, the U.S. has conceded little. It acknowledges that in principle sovereign states do have the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, without committing to the provision of light-water reactors and only agreeing to discuss the issue at an "appropriate time," which presumably will come after North Korea has taken action on abandoning its existing nuclear programs, and at a minimum return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
But why concede anything? Because Washington cannot afford to let the process fail, lest it be blamed for the failure. This has been one of the major weaknesses of the process to date; rather than isolate North Korea's behavior in the eyes of the international community, the U.S. has unfortunately allowed the creation of an environment in which Washington, and not Pyongyang has been blamed for the lack of any progress in ending North Korea's nuclear programs. This agreement thus achieves another important goal for Washington: the clear identification of North Korea as the party responsible for future progress and failure.
Another important achievement of the Beijing agreement is that it managed to narrow the focus of the six-party talks to the specific issue of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs, and set aside other issues, such as a permanent peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese abductee issue, and normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S., for resolution in different forums. These important issues and others, including North Korea's abysmal human-rights record, its pursuit of illicit activities, and missile proliferation should not be ignored. But they should also not serve as a distraction from the immediate priority of tackling the nuclear-weapons issues.
There is cause for a healthy dose of caution ahead of the next round of talks in November. This agreement crossed an immense hurdle: achieving a written statement of principles for future negotiation. But numerous and perhaps even greater hurdles lie ahead. Pyongyang has a history of breaking agreements with the international community, and the world should not be naïve about the difficulty of getting North Korea to stick to this agreement. This will be neither a quick nor easy task and one which will require a great deal of patience. It is critical for Washington to continue to work with its allies and partners to ensure that divisions do not occur and the process continues toward the ultimate goal -- a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
Ms. Hwang is the Northeast Asia policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the The Asian Wall Street Journal