The six-party talks in Beijing finally produced something this morning—a "joint statement" in which North Korea vows to give up its nuclear-weapons program and rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while the other five countries (the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea) promise to provide massive energy assistance and respect Pyongyang's sovereignty—i.e., not invade or attack its soil.
It's a significant breakthrough. But it could easily have been accomplished two and a half years ago, had President George W. Bush been willing. It is also nothing like an actual agreement, just a preliminary step before the real negotiations—where, if history holds, North Korea will frustrate us with tricks and backtracking, and we just have to hang on tight.
The New York Times reports that the agreement marks the first time since U.S.-North Korean relations broke down in 2002 that the two sides "have drawn up a road map for ending their dispute through peaceful means." But the North Koreans have been saying, almost continuously since January 2003, that they would give up their nukes if the United States dropped its "hostile policy," pledged not to attack or invade their territory, and resumed aid and trade. The obstacle has been that, throughout his first term, Bush refused even these minimal conditions, opposing the whole idea of negotiating with a tyrant like Kim Jong-il and preferring to wait for Kim's regime to collapse. Since then, Bush seems to have realized that Kim's collapse is not imminent and there's little he can do to speed it up; and his second-term secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has managed to persuade him of diplomacy's merits, given the lack of alternatives.
It's good that President Bush has come around, but it would have been better had he done so before the North Koreans dropped out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked the international inspectors out of their nuclear reactor, unlocked 8,000 fuel rods, and reprocessed them into enough plutonium to build several atomic bombs. Had he signed this rather innocuous joint statement back then (it wouldn't have harmed our national interest to forgo an option—invading North Korea—that we were never going to exercise in the first place), the next steps toward an arms-control treaty would have been much easier than they will be now.
The talks, which were revived this past July, nearly broke down last week when North Korea's emissaries demanded a light-water nuclear-power reactor in exchange for dismantling their nuclear weapons—and insisted that the other five nations pay for it. The U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, quite properly refused. China stepped in with a compromise, and all parties agreed to it. Here is how they finessed the reactor issue:
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) ….
The DPRK states that it has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect and agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor to the DPRK.
Italics added. Boldface and underlining wouldn't be out of place either. For those two little phrases—"at an early date" and "at an appropriate time"—are likely to preoccupy, fluster, and exasperate Assistant Secretary Hill from the moment the talks resume in early November until who-knows-when.
North Korean negotiators have always insisted that any treaty require all sides to carry out their obligations simultaneously, or at least in a step-by-step sequence that does not make Pyongyang give up its assets first. The Agreed Framework, the 1994 accord that froze North Korea's nuclear program (also in exchange for a light-water reactor, or actually two reactors), laid out a very specific timetable—when the reactor's contract would be signed and delivered, when the North Koreans would freeze nuclear-weapons activities and receive international inspectors, when political and economic relations would be normalized, and so forth.
A similar sequence will have to be negotiated in the six-party talks. The challenge will be to figure out who does what first. The North Koreans could conceivably re-enter the Non-Proliferation Treaty right away, whereas it would take well over a year to build and deliver a light-water reactor—even if the United States and the others were inclined to do so, which they aren't.
That's the second challenge: What are we going to do about this light-water reactor? It's one thing to recognize the North Koreans' right to peaceful nuclear energy; it's another thing to give them a power plant. Do the North Koreans really need, or think they need, nuclear power for peaceful purposes? In the 1994 Agreed Framework, the United States promised two light-water reactors to generate 2,000 megawatts. Under the current joint statement, South Korea reaffirms its offer of this past July to provide 2,000 megawatts through electrical power lines.
So, it's possible that the demand for a light-water reactor is a negotiating position. In the joint statement, the parties "agreed to discuss" the subject at the aforementioned "appropriate time." Maybe they will be willing to discuss an alternative reward instead of the nuclear plant.
Then there is the third, most onerous challenge: how to ensure "the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner." Again, italics added. Since the North Koreans have had two and a half years to reprocess their plutonium and—perhaps—convert that plutonium to nuclear weapons, the rest of the world doesn't know how many A-bombs North Korea might possess or where they are. Nor do we know the location of all their A-bomb facilities. In October 2002, U.S. intelligence detected signs of uranium-enrichment, another method of building nuclear weapons. Initially, North Korean diplomats admitted that enrichment was going on. Soon after, they denied it—and still do. So, how is any denuclearization accord going to be verifiable?
Today's joint statement is the precondition for serious arms talks. Now begins the hard part.