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2008/09/25 10:57 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 22 (September 25, 2008)


Three Years of the September 19 Agreement: An Evaluation and Prospects

By Tae-Hwan Kwak, Ph. D.

  (Former President, Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul/
Professor Emeritus, Eastern Kentucky University)

The six-party nuclear talks have produced three significant international agreements to denuclearize North Korea: the Sept. 19, 2005, the Feb. 13, 2007, and Oct. 3, 2007 agreements. Although the Sept. 19 agreement included only the general terms of principles for a roadmap to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it marked the first specific agreement among the six parties; the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. The Feb. 13 and Oct. 3 agreements, however, were specific steps toward implementing the Sept. 19 agreement in a phased manner in line with the principle of 'action for action.'

   This short essay will briefly re-evaluate international efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula through the six-party talks after the Sept. 19 agreement, and attempt to clarify the prospects for the future.

The Efforts of Denuclearizing North Korea

The Sept. 19 agreement served as the basis for North Korea's denuclearization and the provision of economic and political incentives for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). The joint statement stated, "The DPRK is committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards."
The six nations resolved the light-water nuclear reactor (LWR) issue: the DPRK would be accorded the right to peaceful nuclear energy in principle, but only after dismantling its nuclear weapons programs and rejoining the NPT and its safeguard agreements. Nevertheless, there was no mention of North Korea's highly enriched uranium (HEU) program.

   The Banco Delta Asia (BDA) issue was a key obstacle to the implementation of the Sept.19 agreement through the six-party talks. Other obstacles were North Korea's ballistic missile tests in July 2006 and nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006. The DPRK wanted to go nuclear to ensure the survival of the Kim Jong-il regime, thereby building its nuclear deterrent against the perceived threat of a U.S. pre-emptive attack.

   The DPRK decided to return to the six-party talks after a 13-month hiatus, partly because the U.S. agreed to discuss the BDA issue through bilateral talks. The six nations reached a dramatic breakthrough agreement on Feb. 13, 2007, which was a first step toward implementing the Sept. 19 agreement.

   The Feb. 13 agreement's action plan has two phases: At the initial phase, the DPRK must shut down and seal its main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days. IAEA inspectors should be allowed to monitor and verify the process. In return, Pyongyang would get energy, food and other aid worth 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. At the disablement phase, the DPRK must provide a complete list of its nuclear programs and disable all existing nuclear facilities. In return, the DPRK would get aid worth 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or the equivalent in the form of economic or humanitarian aid from the five nations.

   The U.S. agreed to begin the processes of removing North Korea from a U.S. terrorism blacklist and also ending U.S. trade sanctions against the DPRK, but no deadline was set. The six parties agreed also that after 60 days, the foreign ministers of the six nations would discuss security cooperation in Northeast Asia. The directly related parties would hold a separate forum dedicated to setting up a permanent Korean peace regime. Finally, five working groups would be established to carry out the Feb. 13 agreement.

   After the completion of the remittance of the BDA funds, IAEA inspectors had direct access to major facilities in Yongbyon and Taechon, including the five-megawatt reactor, plutonium reprocessing plant, a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, a 50-megawatt reactor under construction, a 200-megawatt power plant being built, and research labs. After several years of off-and-on negotiations, the DPRK finally shut down its main nuclear reactor on July 15, 2007. The IAEA team confirmed all five nuclear facilities were closed.

   The Oct. 3 agreement set the deadline for completing the disablement of nuclear facilities at the second phase. The agreement did not resolve the contentious issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons, but it did include the important provisions: First, the DPRK agreed to disable all existing nuclear facilities, including the 5 megawatt experimental reactor, the reprocessing plant and the nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility at Yongbyon by December 31, 2007. Second, the DPRK also agreed to provide "a complete and correct" declaration of all its nuclear programs by December 31. The DPRK reaffirmed its commitment not to "transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how." Third, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitments to "begin the process of removing" the DPRK from a U.S. terrorism list and end the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act against North Korea, "in parallel with the DPRK's actions." Fourth, the six nations reaffirmed that they would provide the economic, energy and humanitarian aid up to the equivalent of one million tons of heavy fuel oil to the DPRK.

   The U.S. welcomed the agreement. If implemented sincerely, the agreement would effectively end the DPRK's production of plutonium. The U.S. has significantly moderated its hard-line stance since the North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006.

Pyongyang's Nuclear Declaration and Decision to Suspend Disablement

The six-party talks were stalled for months because of disagreement over North Korea's nuclear data declaration. The U.S. maintained that the DPRK ignored the Dec. 31 deadline, while Pyongyang said that it provided a list to the U. S. in November 2007. But the U.S. contended it was incomplete. The U.S. wanted North Korea to include the HEU program and proliferation of nuclear technology and material to Syria in the declaration. The U.S. estimated North Korea had produced about 50-kg (110 lb) of plutonium.

   The U.S. and the DPRK found a formula to break the deadlock over a long-overdue declaration on April 8, 2008 and agreed to a face-saving compromise under which the DPRK would "acknowledge" the U.S. assertions in a confidential document separate from its declaration. This formula functioned as a face-saver for both sides, particularly to North Korea because it did not have to directly admit to the U.S.'s allegations.

   The DPRK finally submitted its declaration on June 26, 2008, including (1) disclosure of its plutonium stockpile, which North Korea estimated at 66 pounds (30-kg); (2) U.S. concerns about North Korea's suspected uranium enrichment program and proliferation activities. North Korea "acknowledged" the U.S. concerns in a confidential document. However, North Korean acknowledgment hardly translated into a "complete and correct" declaration of its past activities under the Feb. 13 agreement.

   The DPRK gave the U.S. thousands of records from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor dating back to 1990 to complement a declaration of its nuclear program. The U.S. had sought access to those records and to the site where North Korea conducted the 2006 nuclear test, and demanded samples from toxic waste and the destruction of the "cooling tower" located at the North's main nuclear complex in response to criticism in negotiations with North Korea.

   Earlier, the April 8 agreement did not require the DPRK to declare the number of nuclear weapons it produced. Conservatives in the U.S. argued that the April 8 deal was a huge concession. Thus, the U.S. pressed the DPRK to make a "complete and correct" declaration for verification, and indicated to delay taking the DPRK off the U.S. terrorism list until the DPRK agreed to a verification protocol.

   The DPRK finally submitted a long-overdue 60-page document to China on June 26, 2008. The North Korean declaration was part of a hard-won deal between Washington and Pyongyang after several months of painful negotiations. The DPRK claimed that more than 80 percent of the disablement work was completed but that the five parties had fulfilled just 40 percent of their economic compensation commitments.

   After a nine-month hiatus, the six-party talks reconvened in Beijing to complete the disablement phase. On July 12, the DPRK agreed to complete the ongoing disablement by the end of October 2008, and also agreed to the general principles of a verification mechanism.

   In accordance with the July agreement, the DPRK will complete disabling its nuclear facilities and the five nations will complete shipments of promised energy aid by the end of October. As of the time of writing, the July agreement may not be implemented on time. The detailed procedures for the verification were not agreed upon. However, the six nations agreed to establish two sets of mechanisms -- one on verifying plutonium-based programs, and the other on monitoring uranium-enrichment program and proliferation of its nuclear activities. But the six nations failed to produce a concrete plan for verification in 45 days.

   The DPRK received a four-page draft verification protocol on July 11, 2008, calling for interviews, on-site visits and material sampling by the U.S. The DPRK could not accept some of the proposed terms. Thus, the DPRK threatened to restart its nuclear weapons program, on Aug. 26, 2008 arguing that the U.S. had not kept its promise to remove North Korea from the U.S. terrorism list, and it announced that it had "suspended disabling" of its nuclear facilities on Aug. 14, 2008. That move had a profound impact on the denuclearization process. The announcement appears to be Pyongyang's rejection of a U.S. proposal during the bilateral talks in August 2008 in New York, on establishing a "complete and accurate" verification mechanism.

   Since the demolition of the "cooling tower" on June 27, the U.S. has maintained that it would not remove North Korea from the terrorism list until North Korea puts forward a verification protocol. The U.S. wanted IAEA inspectors to have full access to all locations suspected to be nuclear sites to ensure that there were no hidden nuclear assets. In response, the DPRK has reacted with rage and disappointment, stating that extra inspections would be a violation of its sovereignty. On Aug. 14, three days after an Aug. 11 deadline for dropping North Korea from the terrorism list passed, the DPRK informed the five parties that it would suspend disablement of its nuclear facilities.

   The U.S. reacted with disappointment. But the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to keep North Korea on the terrorism list until North Korea agreed on the terms of a verification mechanism. The DPRK's announcement could be an attempt to gain more leverage at the bargaining table. It appears that North Korea did not say it would return to the starting point. Rather it appears that North Korea is using it as another card at the negotiation table to urge the U.S. to remove it from the terrorism list and to get a better deal over the verification mechanism.

Future Prospects

In the long-term, the DPRK will eventually give up the nuclear weapons it has built to denuclearize the Korean peninsula in return for further political and economic incentives, which the U.S. and the four other nations from the six-party talks may provide. Nevertheless, there will be a long and arduous road ahead to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. and the DPRK need to continue building mutual confidence through mutual concessions by keeping their commitments to the Sept. 19 agreement and other international agreements.

   Just as the BDA issue -- a key obstacle to the denuclearization process that was resolved through President Bush's political will -- the current impasse over a verification protocol may be resolved with President Bush's and Chairman Kim Jong-il's will to make a compromise.

   If the DPRK does act on its threat, it will undermine the six-party process, but it appears that Chairman Kim is unlikely to break up the six-party framework. Kim may take a pragmatic approach to the current impasse to defend the interests of his regime.

   However, in the short-term, the prospects for the denuclearization process remain dim despite limited progress, as time is not on President Bush's side. The DPRK may slow down the denuclearization process and take a wait-and-see stance until after the November election.