November 4, 2002 | Commentary on Asia
ED110402: More Oil for North Korea
The word "nullification" might sound clear to the casual observer.
But the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush seems to
think otherwise, judging from its hesitation over whether to stop
more free fuel oil from being shipped to Pyongyang tomorrow.
On Tuesday a supertanker is scheduled to depart Singapore for the
North Korean port of Wonsan with a shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy
fuel oil -- paid for predominantly by U.S. taxpayers -- even though
it is now one month since Pyongyang announced the nullification of
the agreement under which it is being delivered.
That agreement is the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea
promised to freeze its nuclear program in return for two
light-water reactors and 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually.
By rights, that agreement should have been dead and buried ever
since North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok -joo declared
the 1994 accord nullified, while confessing to Pyongyang's secret
uranium-enrichment program during an Oct. 4 meeting with U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
Even the State Department, which normally tries to toe a soft
line, admits Pyongyang's secret program violates not only this
agreement but also three others. These are the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency's
safeguards agreement and the 1992 Joint North-South Declaration on
the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
So a casual observer could be forgiven for assuming this would be
more than enough for the U.S. to immediately cease complying with
its obligations under an agreement North Korea has already declared
nullified. But, as shown by the imminent departure of the
supertanker from Singapore, the casual observer would be
Former U.S. Ambassador Charles Kartmann, now executive director of
the Korean Economic Development Organization, which administers aid
to North Korea under the 1994 agreement, has already approved the
ship's departure from Singapore. Questioned last Thursday about
whether the U.S. would stop the oil shipment, State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher said there had been "no new decisions" on
this. He agreed that, in the absence of any such decision, the
shipment "will just go as it's being planned by KEDO." The U.S.
will still have a chance to turn back the shipment after it leaves
Singapore. Tomorrow many of the most senior figures in the Bush
administration will gather in Washington for a meeting known as a
"principals committee," which is expected to discuss whether the
supertanker should be allowed to proceed into North Korean waters.
Those present are expected to include Secretary of State Colin
Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security
Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Central Intelligence Agency Director
What the committee will decide remains unclear. One possibility is
it may conclude there is no point trying to turn back the ship,
because the U.S. does not have any formal veto power in KEDO, a
multilateral organization that also includes representatives from
South Korea, Japan and the European Union.
But that would be a feeble excuse for inaction, especially since
the European Union has already signaled it would be happy to see an
end to the oil shipments. On Friday, the EU parliament decided to
withhold, at least for the moment, next year's funding for KEDO.
Meanwhile Japan is dropping hints that it may go even further and
pull out of KEDO altogether.
A failure to stop the shipment would also leave the final decision
to KEDO's board, which will meet November 14 -- the day the
supertanker arrives off Wonsan -- to decide if the ship should be
allowed to dock and unload.
Such a weak stance -- which is still far from certain -- would be
very much in keeping with the Bush administration's response to the
nuclear crisis so far. Despite KEDO's whole purpose having been
undercut by North Korea's admission of its secret program, there
seems to be no move in Washington to dismantle the organization.
Instead the State Department is eager to continue "engaging" the
North Koreans, only ruling out "talks" with Pyongyang until their
uranium-enrichment program is scrapped.
But as Mr. Boucher made clear, continued oil -- and, for that
matter, other aid -- shipments can continue, as they don't require
talks. Indeed North Korea has received so much U.S. largesse that
it is now the fourth-largest recipient of American economic aid,
after Israel, Egypt and Colombia.
The only person who seems to be talking any sense is John Bolton,
undersecretary for arms control and international security, a lone
voice of logic within the State Department. As he said Friday:
"It's pretty hard to see how we can have conversations with a
government that has blatantly violated its agreements."
The danger is that nuclear blackmail, which succeeded so well in
saving North Korea from complete economic collapse during the
Clinton administration, will work again with the Bush
administration. By not swiftly terminating all economic aid under
the 1994 agreement, after Pyongyang declared it nullified, the
administration continues to reward evil behavior.
In doing so, the Bush administration undermines its own
credibility not only with Pyongyang but also with other allies
whose help it seeks to enlist in fighting a war in Iraq, where
Saddam Hussein's regime has engaged in plenty of nullification of
If the Bush administration doesn't understand the clear meaning of
North Korea's nullification of the aid-for-disarmament agreement
and continues to give aid despite the North's continued nuclear
weapons development, it will have only itself to blame for allowing
the crisis to turn into a humiliation for Washington.
Tkacik, Jr., a 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
Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.