The fourth round of the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs finally concluded in Beijing on September 19th with a Joint Statement adopted by all the parties. While supporters and critics alike will be tempted to begin their congratulations and recriminations now, temperance, combined with cautious optimism for the future of the six-party process, would be the more appropriate response.
The most important part of the agreement is North Korea's (DPRK) "commitment to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and return at an early date to the Nonproliferation Treaty and to IAEA safeguards." Also included is a statement that both Koreas would return to the "observation" and "implementation of the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." This provision is critical because it includes all North Korean nuclear programs, whether plutonium- or uranium-based. Pyongyang's reluctance to discuss its uranium program had been a sticking point in previous rounds of talks.
Critics of this agreement will be skeptical about the vague wording of North Korea's commitment, and rightly so. Pyongyang has a long history of making and breaking agreements with the international community, and no one should be naïve about the difficulty of getting North Korea to stick to this or any agreement. Critics will also object strongly to the inclusion of the statement that "the DPRK has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and the parties "agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor to the DPRK." North Korea's demand that it receive a light-water reactor before it takes action to dismantle its nuclear programs was the key issue of impasse with the United States, with Washington rightly refusing this consideration as a "non-starter" for future talks.
In the agreement, the United States acknowledges that in principle, sovereign states do have a right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy without committing to the provision of light-water reactors, but only to discuss the issue at an "appropriate time." This would be, presumably, after North Korea has taken action to abandon its existing nuclear programs and, at a minimum, returned to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There is reason to view this agreement in a positive light because it achieved several important U.S. goals. First, it includes a written statement of principles that conforms to the consistent U.S. insistence on "CVID"-complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement-of North Korea's nuclear weapons. Second, the agreement clearly identifies the party responsible for future progress and failure: North Korea, not the United States. Third, it narrows the focus of the six-party process to the specific issue of North Korean nuclear dismantlement and sets aside other outstanding bilateral issues, such as a permanent peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula, Japanese abductees, and normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States, for resolution in different forums.
But there is also cause for a healthy does of caution as preparations begin for a new round of talks in November. This agreement did cross an immense hurdle in reaching a written statement of principles for future negotiation. Still, many and perhaps even greater hurdles lie ahead, such as working out how and when North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons program. The next steps will be neither quick nor easy and will require a great deal of patience. Washington must continue to work closely with its allies and partners to ensure that divisions do not occur and that the process proceeds. No doubt, Pyongyang will keep a watchful eye on developments at the International Atomic Energy Agency over the coming weeks on whether to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program. Much is at stake for the future of global nuclear non-proliferation.
Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D., is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.