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Nuclear thaw

Print edition : Mar 09, 2007 T+T-
The United States' deal with North Korea on the latter's nuclear programme is seen as a climbdown from its earlier position.

THE nuclear deal announced on February 13 between the United States and North Korea in Beijing is being described as an important step towards disarmament in the Korean peninsula. The six-party accord, formally signed by North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., is almost a replica of the 1994 Framework Agreement signed between the Clinton administration and Pyongyang. That deal, like the latest one, included the provision of supplying North Korea with heavy fuel oil (HFO) and other forms of energy assistance, including two light water reactors. In exchange, Pyongyang promised to freeze its plutonium programme at Yongbyon permanently. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, however, did not implement crucial parts of the deal, especially those relating to the setting up of the two reactors. A diplomatic breakthrough seemed imminent during the last months of the Clinton administration when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in late 2000 and had a cordial meeting with the "dear leader" Kim Jong-il.

However, after George W. Bush assumed presidency in 2001, North Korea was once again subjected to punitive sanctions on flimsy grounds. The Bush administration accused the country of secretly working on a programme to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in the production of nuclear weapons. The intelligence community in the West was fully aware that the North Korean weapons programme was plutonium-based. After Washington stopped its supply of HFO to the energy-starved country, North Korea retaliated by expelling the international nuclear inspectors and walking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By then, the Bush administration had identified North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of the "axis of evil".

Preparations were already under way in Washington for the invasion of Iraq. The message was not lost on Pyongyang. The tension was ratcheted up when North Korea conducted a nuclear test in October 2006.

Experts are of the opinion that if Washington and Pyongyang adhere to the terms of the agreement, a new security architecture can be put in place in East Asia. Under the terms of the accord, North Korea must shut down and seal its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days and allow United Nations inspectors to verify the process. In return, it will receive an initial assistance of 50,000 tonnes of HFO, jointly supplied by China, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. Once North Korea provides a complete list of its nuclear programmes and disables all existing nuclear facilities, it will get 95,000 tonnes of HFO. Five working groups will be set up, on denuclearisation, U.S.-North Korea relations, Japan-North Korea relations, economic cooperation and peace and security in East Asia.

The U.S. administration has agreed to start the process of normalisation of relations with Pyongyang. It has pledged to remove North Korea from the list of states "sponsoring terrorism" and end trade sanctions within 60 days, and also to defreeze North Korean accounts in a Macao bank.

From available indications, North Korea has agreed, in principle, to nuclear disarmament but no specific time-frame has been set. Pyongyang has reasons to be wary about Washington's promises, especially after its experiences following the 1994 agreement. One of the long-standing demands of North Korea is full diplomatic recognition by the U.S. A statement by the official North Korean news agency said that both countries "agreed to solve their pending issues and kick off the bilateral talks aimed at opening full diplomatic ties". North Korean state media have emphasised that the new pact requires only the "temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities". One North Korean official stated that the most significant fact about the six-party talks was that George Bush "waved the white flag", allowing North Korea to retain its nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration is, however, insisting that it is committed to the rolling back and eventual dismantling of the North Korean nuclear programme.

All the same, North Korea seems to have scored yet another victory in its dogged struggle with the U.S., which dates back to the Korean War of the 1950s. Since then the two Koreas have been living in a state of perpetual tension. In the late 1960s, when the Koreans captured the spy ship "USS Pueblo", Washington was forced to send a written apology to secure the release of the ship and the crew. There were other serious incidents too, including the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane during the presidency of Richard Nixon. In 1994, the Clinton administration was on the verge of launching missile and air strikes "to take out" North Korean nuclear targets. The leadership in Pyongyang did not forget this episode, which put the Korean peninsula on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. North Korea redoubled its efforts to build adequate nuclear and missile deterrents against American threats.

In fact, for a brief period in the 1990s, a peaceful Korean peninsula seemed to be a realistic goal. After Bush Senior decided to withdraw American nuclear weapons from South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and his South Korean counterpart Roh Tae-woo signed a joint declaration on denuclearising the peninsula. But after Clinton's threat to use "cruise missiles", there was a rethink in Pyongyang.

The U.S. continued to retain its military bases in South Korea. The U.S.-South Korean military exercises were an annual reminder to North Korea of its military vulnerability.

On assuming presidency, George Bush was quick to describe the Korean policy of his predecessor as "weak-kneed". He singled out North Korea as a priority target for pre-emptive military action. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush, specifically naming Iran, Iraq and North Korea, said that the "axis of evil" states, by seeking weapons of mass destruction, posed a "grave and growing danger" to the U.S. and its allies. He said that the U.S. "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons". His statement came at a time when the South Korean government was implementing its "sunshine policy" aimed at improving relations with North Korea.

Barely three months after North Korea conducted a successful nuclear test (in October 2006) and test-fired long-range missiles, Washington decided that negotiations were a better option than war and economic coercion. The secret negotiations between the two sides in Berlin started almost immediately after North Korea detonated its nuclear weapon. Pyongyang has always attached primacy to direct negotiations with Washington. It was face-to-face talks between Christopher Hill, top U.S. State Department official, and Kim Kye Gwan, the North Korean representative to the six-party talks, that clinched the deal.


The decision of the Bush administration to break ground with Pyongyang attracted a lot of criticism, especially from the die-hard sections of the neo-conservatives. Vice-President Dick Cheney's office was not kept in the loop. According to reports in the American media, it was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who accelerated the process, getting the deal cleared directly from the White House.

Leading the charge against the accord is John Bolton, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., who was involved briefly in the negotiations. Bolton, who specialised in insulting and demonising the North Korean leadership, urged the Bush administration not to sign the agreement, on the grounds that it rewarded bad behaviour. He termed the accord as a "very bad deal" that highlighted Washington's weaknesses at a time when it was confronting Iran on its nuclear programme.

Bush reacted to Bolton's criticism by saying that he "strongly" disagreed with the assessment that the deal rewarded North Korea by relieving financial pressure on it for only partially dismantling its nuclear programme. The Democrats, on the other hand, criticised the President for waiting for North Korea to go nuclear and then make the concessions.

Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that "North Korea's programme is much more dangerous to us now than it was in 2002, when President Bush rejected virtually the same deal he is now embracing". American disarmament experts are also of the view that the 1994 Framework Agreement was more airtight compared with the new deal. In 1994, Republicans accused Clinton of succumbing to "nuclear blackmail". Robert Einhorn, a State Department official who accompanied Madeline Albright during her visit to Pyongyang, while welcoming the new accord, said that many people were going to ask the question whether the deal could not have been concluded four years ago "before North Korea concluded its nuclear test and acquired enough plutonium to build anywhere between six and 10 nuclear weapons". Last year, Dick Cheney in a speech warned the North Korean leadership that the U.S. did not "negotiate with evil; we defeat it".

The international community has welcomed the deal. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has "strongly welcomed" the deal, describing it as "the first practical stage towards a non-nuclear Korean peninsula".