Last February, when North Korea trumpeted to the world that it did indeed possess "nukes" and felt "compelled" to suspend its participation in the six-party talks because of the "hostile" attitude of the United States, I wrote that eventually, Beijing would "[n]o doubt…persuade" Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. "But it is a certainty," I predicted, "that there will be no progress at the six-party talks, however long they last, because it's not in Beijing's interests to see the process come to an end."
I would like to be proven wrong, but the results of the fourth round of six-party talks that concluded in Beijing on Sept. 19 give little reason for optimism. They merely promise that the talks will continue in November for a fifth round-perhaps at the same time U.S. President George W. Bush is in China-and then for a sixth and a seventh round, and so on.
So was a "breakthrough" really achieved on Sept. 19, as many have triumphantly claimed? The Joint Statement of Principles was crafted in the maddeningly vague language of diplomacy designed to mean whatever each signatory wants it to mean-even if diametrically the opposite of another signatory's position. Ultimately, a breakthrough would mean that in the next round, the D.P.R.K. will faithfully negotiate the highly detailed "roadmap" of deeds and rewards that the U.S. side outlined in the June 2004 round of talks, and provide evidence of goodwill-like an inventory of its existing nuclear-weapons program.
The Clinton administration came up with a similar document in 1994 which evolved into a formal Agreed Framework that addressed only Pyongyang's plutonium-separation operations at North Korea's Yongbyon reactor complex. The Agreed Framework promised Pyongyang massive amounts of food and fuel aid, normalized diplomatic ties with Washington and Tokyo, and secured a joint U.S., Japanese and South Korean nuclear-power reactor to make up for the supposed loss of energy from a not-yet built reactor in Yongbyon.
But almost immediately upon initialing the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang secretly started up a uranium-based weapons program-purchasing the equipment and technology from Pakistan and others. And almost immediately, U.S. intelligence began to pick up the scent. Nonetheless, the Americans continued to send food aid and heavy fuel oil to the D.P.R.K. for eight years, making it the top recipient of U.S. aid in Asia. By 2002, however, the intelligence had become so overwhelming that the Bush administration felt compelled, on Oct. 3, 2002, to confront Pyongyang with the evidence and ask for an explanation. There followed bold-even insulting-North Korean braggadocio about its nuclear-weapons prowess leading to the cessation of aid and the present crisis.
Unhappily, this latest Statement of Principles, says a former U.S. subcabinet officer, looks like an "Agreed Framework, Part Deux." The statement issued by the Beijing-hosted six-party talks promises to be a tunnel at the end of the tunnel. In it, North Korea proclaims that it is "committed" to abandoning "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" in return for which the U.S "expressed" its "respect" for North Korea's "right" to have a nuclear-power reactor.
On the face of it, the simple, half-page document accomplishes little and leaves the myriad details to possibly countless rounds of future negotiations. The document apparently lets the D.P.R.K. continue to operate a "power reactor" at Yongbyon that can still generate plutonium, and there is no hint that North Korea must dismantle the reactor, or freeze its existing nuclear-weapons programs, or even cease generating plutonium-rich fuel rods.
Other items not addressed are a timetable for dismantling the North's nuclear program or verification procedures. Like the Agreed Framework, North Korea makes a solemn "commitment" to return to the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards regime-the same regime that for eight years was unable to monitor anything outside the Yongbyon nuclear plant itself.
The Statement of Principles envisions a phased series of deeds and rewards-a principle of "commitment for commitment, action for action." But the wording of the "commitment/action" phrase virtually guarantees the six parties will bicker endlessly about who does what and when, before or after the other does how much.
Even Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill acknowledged to the press in Beijing that implementation of the statement, which he seems to suppose would include dismantling Pyongyang's plutonium-producing gas-graphite nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, "has yet to be hammered out." Mr. Hill told reporters "whether this agreement helps solve this will depend in large measure on what we do in the days and weeks that follow," and added "we have to see implementation."
But the big question is how long will the U.S. put up with this? China wants the negotiations to last indefinitely because it gives Beijing considerable leverage in Washington. Upon hearing the news Monday morning, one former White House Korea specialist commented privately, "Now Hu Jintao will get his state visit."
There is little indication that China's leaders feel the same urgency about North Korea's nuclear weapons that Americans do. Quite the opposite, in fact. North Korea received a full uranium enrichment package from Pakistan several years ago, which was reportedly flown across Chinese airspace in Pakistani military aircraft. China supplied Pakistan with uranium-enrichment equipment, weapons technology and scientific personnel throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and Pakistani officials provided Chinese nuclear-weapons blueprints to Libya. Although the details of Pakistani nuclear smuggler A.Q. Khan's interrogation are secret, enough has been publicized to illuminate Chinese fingerprints on many of his deals.
There is little room to doubt that the D.P.R.K. indeed has nuclear weapons, as well as a robust uranium-enrichment program. And in Washington, grave suspicions remain that North Korea will never, under any circumstances, abandon its nuclear weapons. Aside from the prosaic notion that without nuclear weapons, North Korea is just another murderous little hellhole like Liberia under Charles Taylor, Pyongyang's addiction to nukes goes much deeper.
The D.P.R.K is virtually compelled by Kim Jong Il's Songun, or Army First policy, to preserve its nuclear-weapons arsenal. North Korea can no longer be truly called a communist state; rather it has become a totalitarian military dictatorship. Songun is the overarching state ideology that literally puts the "army before the working class," instructs that "the gun barrel should be placed over the hammer and sickle," and demands "nothing is more urgent and important than to build an invincible revolutionary army." Songun is the all-encompassing faith of North Korea. It is the younger Mr. Kim's "perfection" of his father Kim Il Sung's Juche, or "self-strengthening," ideology. It is "an irresistible current of history to advance along the army first path." Nuclear weapons are the essence of the "invincible army."
Regardless of the flickers of hope from the Sept. 19 Statement of Principles, even the optimists in Washington see little that could really be called a "breakthrough." And even the optimists admit that unless there is significant progress in November's fifth round, at the very least a catalog of North Korea's 10 nuclear devices, its uranium centrifuges and attendant equipment, as well as its separated plutonium stocks, and other things Mr. Khan can attest to, the Statement of Principles will prove as useless as the Agreed Framework of 1994.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeaered in the Far Eastern Economic Review