Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
Moon J. Pak, M.D., Ph.D.
Although the fourth round of the six-party talks held in Beijing in August, did not produce any formal agreement, it represented the most significant contacts between the US and North Korea (DPRK) on the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Although billed as "multilateral", the most productive contacts were the "bilateral" meetings, between US Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Christopher R. Hill and Mr. Kim, Gye-Gwan, Vice-Foreign Minister of the DPRK. Mr. Hill, as a former US ambassador to South Korea, was culturally sensitive, unlike his predecessor, and appears to have possessed the patience and diplomatic skills needed in dealing with North Koreans. Therefore, the insistence by North Korea in the past that the US holds the key to the resolution of the problem through a sincere bilateral approach appears validated.
It is also significant that the August talks came during an enhanced mood of rapprochement between the two Koreas. This was due to the successful Pyongyang event in June, which both Koreas jointly celebrated the June-15-2000 South-North Declaration signed by President Kim, Dae-jung and Chairman Kim, Jung-il. The event was followed by a South Korean offer of an annual supply of 2000 megawatts electricity to the North as part of the agreement of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
It is significant that this is exactly the amount of energy that would have been produced by the two Light Water Reactors (LWR) US promised to build in North Korea in the 1994 Agreed Framework, signed in Geneva by Gallucci (US) and Kim, Gye-Gwan (DPRK). The Agreement stipulated that the first of the two LWR's was to become operational by 2004 and the second in 2006. However, the project, administered by a US led consortium called KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) had shown repeated delays from its inception, and in 2003 when Bush scrapped and reneged on the entire Agreement, the two reactors remained standing in the Kumho area of North Korea with only about 34% completed. This was after an expenditure of $15 billion (of which 75%, i.e., $11.3 billion came from South Korea and the balance from Japan, not the US), of the original projected cost of $46 billion.
This energy supply of 2000 megawatts was to fuel the North Korea's economic development which is deemed by North Koreans as essential to their survival and modernization.
The negotiating sessions between Assistant Secretary Hill and Vice-Foreign Minister Kim have been known to have achieved a measure of mutual understanding, on such matters as normalization of the US-DPRK diplomatic relationship, lifting of some of the economic sanctions and embargoes, regime security guarantee, and on the matter of US providing nuclear umbrella over the South Korea. These are generally the clauses delineated in the '94 Agreed Framework. In return, North Korea will dismantle their nuclear weapons system with sufficient expediency and necessary transparency, to the satisfaction of the US, and rejoin the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
These positive understandings, however became stalled when the US challenged the North Korea's right as a sovereign nation to retain the peaceful use of nuclear energy. North Korea has several heavy water reactors (HWR) in Yongbyun and elsewhere, and more importantly, the 34% completed two LWR's in Kumho, which does not produce any weapons grade plutonium. It is relevant to note that presently, South Korea has 20 LWR's, Japan, 50 and the US over 200.
Participation in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) by any country comes with a guarantee of technical support from nuclear members of the treaty, in the development of nuclear power plants. This provision is an incentive for joining the NPT by non-nuclear countries. Therefore, the US refusal to recognize North Korea's right for the peaceful use of nuclear energy, as they rejoin the NPT is incomprehensible. Recently, the US demonstrated inconsistency in support of this concept when it offered nuclear technical support to India, despite India's refusal to join the NPT.
The US opposition to the North Korea's peaceful use of nuclear energy is based on their assertion that the DPRK had secretly been developing a nuclear weapons program in violation of the '94 Agreed Framework. This assertion bears examinations:
President Bush began his first term by criticizing Clinton's North Korea policy and the '94 Agreed Framework as an example of appeasement. Pyongyang, on the other hand, bitterly complained about what they saw as clear American non-compliance of the '94 Agreement, including delays in the promised normalization of relationships, lifting of the sanctions and embargoes, opening of the trades, and the promised light water reactors, and unreliable fuel oil delivery to North Korea, which the Agreement also promised. Despite these failures by the US, the DPRK noted that they had adhered to their side of the bargain, by maintaining their plutonium fuel-rods under seal and keeping them under surveillance by the UN inspectors stationed in Pyongyang.
In 2002, during this strained relationship between the two countries, US intelligence obtained evidence that the North Korea had acquired special aluminum tubes needed to build a centrifuge to enrich uranium, which can be used to build uranium based nuclear weapons. The US sent special envoy, James Kelly to Pyongyang. At the opening of the very first meeting with North Korean officials, envoy Kelly bluntly accused them of treaty-breaking. Offended by the Kelly's high handed approach, the head of North Korea's delegation responded with equal bluntness. He asserted that given the record of American non-compliance with the Agreement, his country reserves the right to build any nuclear weapons, plutonium or uranium. This statement has been taken widely by the US as the North Korean admission of their guilt, and in 2003, President Bush had declared the Agreement null and void, citing North Korean "non-compliance." The rest is history; North Korea expelled UN inspectors from Pyongyang, withdrew from the NPT, processed their fuel-rods to manufacture plutonium bomb(s) and declared itself a de facto nuclear power.
North Korea has since steadfastly denied that they had ever tried to enrich uranium. To this date, the US intelligence has never been able to prove that the North Koreans had indeed enriched uranium, although ironically, in 2004, they were able to detect South Korean's uranium enrichment effort using laser beam technology, in a clear violation of the NPT by South Korea. Most recently Pakistan, a shameless proliferator of the nuclear weapons technology in the world, and an American ally, announced that they did indeed sell the aluminum tubes to Pyongyang, although in small quantities insufficient to fashion a large centrifuge devise that can produce sufficient amount of uranium needed for a bomb.
While it appears that North Koreans did acquire the aluminum tubes needed in uranium enrichment, it is a far cry from actually producing weapons grade uranium and building a weapon in violation of the '94 Agreement. Therefore it is neither correct nor fair, to brand them as a treaty-breaker or characterize them as deceptive. It should be noted that enriched uranium is also used in nuclear power plants, and that the US is planning to build a massive size enrichment plant in its West.
It is ironic to note that among the six countries in this multilateral talks, only Japan supports the US position. South Korea, Russia, and China have all clearly indicated their support for recognition of North Korea's right to develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy, thus, effectively isolating the US position.
Many Korean-Americans feel that recognition of North Korea's right to develop nuclear energy for economic development is a small price to pay for the realization of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Any US safety concerns could be met easily by reactivating, and broadening the KEDO concept, an international consortium led by US, and placing North Korea's nuclear energy development program under its aegis, as well as offering to the North Koreans the resumption of the existing LWR project to its completion, as promised in 1994.
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and improved relationship between US and DPRK came tantalizingly close at the conclusion of the fourth round of the six-party talks in Beijing, last August. By avoiding an arrogant, high handed approach, and paying appropriate attention to cultural sensitivities, and relying on an informal bilateral approach, an effective give and take emerged between the two countries. The current impasse results from US refusal to recognize North Korea's right for her future peaceful use of nuclear energy, based on their distrust of the North Korea. A careful review of events and facts surrounding the US accusation of North Korean violation reveals no hard evidence supporting the US assertion.
North Korea is already a nuclear country with its several existing and operational heavy water reactors and two partly completed light water reactors in the Kumho area , built by the US-led KEDO(Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).
Given North Korea's meager non-nuclear energy resources, and South Korea's willingness to help, It is only a matter of time when it will develop nuclear energy sources, regardless of US misgivings.
A solution could be found in reactivating the KEDO concept through which under the multinational joint management mechanism, North Korea may be allowed to continue to develop its peaceful nuclear energy programs, including the completion of the two LWR's promised to them by the '94 Agreed Framework.
*Chairman, US-DPRK Medical Science Exchange Committee (UDMEDX)