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North Korea: Pyongyang Continues Its Checkered History With Nuclear Regulatory Body

  • Robert McMahon

North Korea has so far expressed defiance to the call by the International Atomic Energy Agency for compliance with inspections of its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Pyongyang has countered the possible imposition of United Nations Security Council sanctions with the threat of war. But a review of the crisis that unfolded 10 years ago between North Korea and the IAEA shows diplomacy may work before strong council action is needed.

United Nations, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has been nearly 10 years since North Korea's last crisis with the international nuclear watchdog. The way that situation was resolved may hold clues to how the new impasse with Pyongyang is handled.

North Korea acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985. That required it to agree on safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the body responsible for verifying compliance with the treaty.

The safeguards agreement, reached in 1992, required North Korea to send the IAEA a report on all nuclear material that would come under controls in the country. Inspections and analysis that followed North Korea's initial report on nuclear material in 1992 have suggested it was concealing undeclared plutonium.

In such circumstances, any country that has joined the treaty is required to cooperate with the IAEA, a UN agency founded in 1957.

Defiance can ultimately lead to action by the UN Security Council, which, under the UN charter, is empowered to impose sanctions or even authorize force, if necessary, to maintain international peace and security.

The IAEA's director-general, Mohammad el-Baradei, raised the prospect of council action as a last resort in comments to reporters on 6 January. He spoke after the agency's 35-member governing board passed a resolution calling on North Korea to permit inspections to resume.

The board includes representatives of the five permanent Security Council members, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, as well as temporary members Germany, Spain, Chile, and Bulgaria.

In comments on UN Radio yesterday, IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming reiterated that North Korea is obliged to comply with the agency's demands. "Our board of governors gave them the opportunity, but they also gave them a warning, and the warning was: Defiance is not going to work. Compliance is what you need to do. Once you demonstrate that you are willing to comply very concretely, at that point you will get talks, and you will get some of the needs that you are asking for," Fleming said.

Among Pyongyang's demands is for the United States to sign a nonaggression pact. Washington yesterday said it would be willing to talk to North Korea but also said the United States would make no further concessions to North Korea.

The crisis that arose a decade ago between North Korea and the international community intensified after Pyongyang refused to allow the IAEA to visit two facilities suspected of housing nuclear waste. The IAEA's governing board found North Korea in breach of its safeguards agreement and reported the breach to the Security Council. The council passed a resolution in May 1993 calling on North Korea to comply with the agreement.

When the prospect of Security Council sanctions was raised the following year, North Korea issued a warning that sanctions would mean war. Pyongyang released a similar message yesterday through its official Korean Central News Agency.

In 1994, the United States and North Korea eventually reached an accord known as the Agreed Framework. Under that agreement, North Korea stopped work at a nuclear complex capable of producing weapons-grade material in exchange for fuel oil and help in building safe nuclear reactors.

The United States says it is committed to a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the current crisis.

The IAEA resolution on 6 January, which the United States praised, is unlikely to lead to any dramatic concessions by North Korea, says David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and a former Canadian diplomat. But Malone told RFE/RL that a Security Council discussion of the matter could be productive. "I think bringing the issue to the Security Council and having the Security Council express deep concern is helpful, because the North Koreans need to understand that it's not just the United States but virtually the entire rest of the international community that's deeply upset by its behavior," Malone said.

The council has not scheduled any discussions on North Korea for January. It has two important meetings this month with el-Baradei and chief weapons inspector Hans Blix on the status of inspections for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in Iraq.

If the situation in North Korea deteriorates, Malone said he does not think council members will be distracted by the Iraq crisis. "Whatever is going on in Iraq, there will be a strong sense that North Korea's actions do threaten international peace and security and deserve to be addressed on their own terms," Malone said.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970, is aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology and promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

More countries have ratified the treaty, 188, than any other arms-limitation or disarmament agreement. There is increasing pressure on three non-signatories to join: India, Pakistan, and Israel.

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