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North Korea: Is Nuclear Agreement Unraveling Already?

  • Andrew Tully

Two years of tense negotiations reached a climax yesterday in Beijing, when North Korea agreed in principle to give up its nuclear-weapons program. But questions remain: how soon it will do so -- and, in fact, will it do so at all? An initial answer has already emerged. Today, North Korea abruptly turned the tables, stating that it will not fulfill its pledge to shed its weapons program until it is given civilian nuclear reactors. Japan and the United States called the sudden demand unacceptable and not in line with the agreement reached at six-party talks that also involved China, Russia, and South Korea.

Washington, 20 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Fresh from shaking hands with his North Korean counterparts, chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill yesterday hailed the deal in Beijing as a new sign of trust among Pyongyang, its neighbors, and the United States.

“We see this [agreement], of course, as a voluntary decision by the DPRK [North Korea] to get out of this business. So we do not plan to go out onto the landscape of the DPRK and start hunting for nuclear facilities. We expect those to be shown to us, and we expect to move quickly. This is absolutely in the DPRK's interests. The sooner the better. And I think they know that," Hill said.

But just one day after the historic agreement, North Korea has put the deal in jeopardy. In a Foreign Ministry statement, Pyongyang demanded that it first be given civilian nuclear reactors before moving to eliminate its atomic weapons program.

The United States said North Korea's statement did not match the agreement it signed. Japan called it unacceptable, while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang urged all sides to fulfill their promises.

“We really hope that each party could have the attitude of respect for each other to push forward the six-party talks. As far as I know, the agreement that has been reached is that in early November we are going to have the next phase of the six-party talks, I don't think I have heard that anything has changed,” Qin said.

The six countries had agreed to a set of principles on ending Pyongyang's nuclear program in return for security guarantees, oil, energy, and aid and recognizing its right to civilian nuclear energy. The six agreed to discuss providing a light-water reactor "at an appropriate time."

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli interprets that phrase as meaning once North Korea has ended its atomic arms program.

"The parties agreed to talk about the civilian light-water reactor in the future, at an appropriate time. What we make clear in our statement -- and, I would underscore this, what the other parties made clear in their statements as well -- is that an appropriate time means once North Korea has returned to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and once they are in compliance with all IAEA safeguards," Ereli said.

While tactics are likely part of Pyongyang’s statement, it also could be aimed at its domestic audience, says Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo and an expert on North Korea.

“When North Korea explained this agreement to their people, they must have told them that the light-water reactors would come first. If they didn’t do that, the military and its leader would not have agreed in the first place. But since the United States says nuclear disarmament comes first, they are obliged to counter that, or otherwise they will not be able to explain it internally,” Shigemura said.

Another goal of Pyongyang is to try to isolate the United States from its four other partners in the six-party talks, according to James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador in Seoul and Beijing who spoke with RFE/RL.

“The five nations beginning to pull together more -- that is their [the North Koreans'] final nightmare. They've got to divide the five nations. They've got to isolate the United States. They've got to bribe and get these things given to them. If that isn't working, then they've got to devise another strategy, and it'll be interesting to see what they devise after this,” Lilley said.

Japanese analyst Shigemura says he doubts Pyongyang will ever give up its nuclear arms program -- no matter what it might promise to do.

“North Korea has no intention of abandoning nuclear weapons. That is because they are economically bankrupt and militarily very weak and need a bargaining chip stronger than their actual strength. If they abandon their nuclear weapons, they are well aware that no one will pay attention to them anymore,” Shigemura said.

South Korea, meanwhile, says it is ready to work to bridge the gap between the United States and Pyongyang over what it characterized as a disagreement over some of the agreement’s wording. It added that in the meantime, the agreement should pave the way for economic aid to start flowing to the impoverished North.
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