November 15, 2007

November 15, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

Pyongyang cloud cover

Almost everything is in short supply in North Korea -- especially transparency. That's one reason so many longtime Korea watchers viewed the agreement arising from the Six-Party Talks earlier this year with such skepticism.

The gladsome news was that North Korea agreed to "provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs" by year's end. But this is the same North Korea that agreed to end its nuclear weapons ambitions during the Clinton era and subsequently declared it had done so. Only it hadn't.

North Korea's "data declaration" may come this week. It merits close examination, for it will test both Pyongyang's willingness to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and Washington's resolve to hold the rogue nation to strict verification standards. The latter is critical, because the vague language of the agreement does not clearly delineate North Korea's responsibilities. That opens the door to misinterpretation or deliberate malfeasance by Pyongyang.

U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill insists "nuclear programs" is an all-encompassing term that requires North Korea to provide data on its nuclear weapons. North Korean Kim Gye-gwan disagrees, claiming the North "can't declare nuclear weapons this year, because if we do it at this stage, our nuclear weapons technology level will be revealed." Such "interpretations" do not ease skeptics' anxiety.

Recently suspicions about the firmness of U.S. resolve to confront Pyongyang's abhorrent behavior heightened even more when the Bush administration refused to address congressional concerns about possible Korean initiatives in Syria. Were those Korean-assisted nuclear facilities that Israel bombed there last month?

Perhaps seeking to dispel suspicions of softness, President Bush has now asserted Pyongyang must disclose all of its past proliferation activity in the declaration. Certainly this is not spelled out in the agreement, but here's hoping we will hold North Korea to this higher standard.

Verification, of course, is the key to ensuring Korean compliance. Pyongyang's violation of four previous nuclear agreements and its refusal to allow international inspectors to visit two suspect sites in 1992 makes such a requirement inviolable. Quite simply, without verification, there should be no agreement. That the United States is preparing to accept a data declaration without first insisting on an extensively detailed verification protocol is extremely troubling.

U.S. National Technical Means, including imagery satellites, are useful, but no substitute for on-site inspections. Classified collection systems can alert us to suspicious activity, but suspicions can only be conclusively resolved by inspectors on the ground.

The U.S. could enter into arms control treaties with the Soviet Union confidently only because Washington insisted on effective verification. "Trust but verify" was the strategy then, and Bush administration should accept nothing less now.

The agreements penned earlier this year don't contain the provisions to ensure North Korea honors its pledge to denuclearize fully. The U.S. must move quickly to insist on a clear delineation of data and a vigorous verification regime before the data declaration occurs. North Korea should be required to reveal the number, type and location of its nuclear weapons; the extent of its uranium-based nuclear weapons facilities and equipment; and its nuclear proliferation activities with Syria, Iran, Libya and the A.Q. Khan network.

An effective verification regime would include details such as the annual number of inspections, the technical inspection equipment allowed, and a requirement that inspectors be transported expeditiously to desired sites. Most importantly, the United States must get Pyongyang's commitment to allow short-notice "challenge" inspections of suspect sites.

The Bush administration's coyness about possible Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria raises suspicions it may be willing to sacrifice principles and international treaty commitments to maintain momentum in the Six-Party Talks. And in Asia, rumors that Washington has promised to remove Pyongyang from the list of terrorist states -- without first getting the promised resolution of the Japanese abduction issue -- risks straining relations with a key U.S. ally.

If the administration hopes to secure sufficient congressional and public support to continue the nuclear negotiations, it should stop stonewalling and provide an assessment of North Korea's nuclear and missile proliferation in congressional hearings -- both open and closed. And in future negotiations with North Korea, the U.S. must insist upon text that clearly (1) delineates the requirements placed on all sides and (2) defines the linkage between the denuclearization steps to be taken by North Korea and the economic and diplomatic benefits it will reap in return.

The Six-Party process to "denuclearize" North Korea cannot succeed, and will fuel only more skepticism and discord, until such time as both Pyongyang and Washington are more forthcoming in their actions and more precise in their words.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Washington Times