November 4, 2002

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 wrong.

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 George Tenet.

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 its own.

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. 

John J. 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 Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.