September 22, 2005
By Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D.
"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
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
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
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
"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.
Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Analyst
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