Satellite image of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon
North Korea is asking the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove the seals from its Yongbyon nuclear plant, a first step toward resuming the nuclear weapons program that it had agreed to end. Pyongyang says it plans to resume its nuclear activities because Washington has reneged on a key concession -- namely, to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke about the development with David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington.
RFE/RL: Is North Korea's assertion that it's ready to restart its nuclear reactor a major stumbling block, or merely a minor effort to extract more concessions from the United States?
David Albright: It's something, but I would think it's still more part of negotiations and making political points, and then trying to break out of the agreement and start making new plutonium. It'll take them a while to restart the reactor. They don't have enough fresh fuel for it, so they're going to have to make fuel.
Where you'd be more worried is if they say, "Look, we're going to restart the reprocessing plant," because there they have spent fuel that they could run through the reprocessing plant and separate more plutonium for nuclear weapons. So by focusing on the reactor, I think they're signaling that they're not in any big hurry, and it's more about negotiations than pushing for a better deal.
RFE/RL: What would that "better deal" be?
Albright: The deal revolves around getting off the terrorism list and reducing the verification requirements [on dismantling its nuclear program]. And, of course, I support stronger verification requirements, so I think we have to be pretty firm with North Korea now. But at the same time I think the negotiations are quite worthwhile.
RFE/RL: Why does North Korea object to verification? Didn't it agree to verification when the deal was first struck?
Albright: [It's] the verification rules. It's not even verification, it's that North Korea agrees to a set of rules that could then be implemented after they're taken off the [terrorism] list to verify that North Korea's declaration of how much plutonium they've produced and separated is accurate. So it's the rules, and North Korea doesn't like them.
It was an oversight in the negotiation, and you have to blame the United States for this. [U.S. negotiators] didn't really nail down with North Korea that verification would entail A, B, C, through Z. So North Korea agreed to verification, but they didn't nail down what that verification would be.
'That's A Bad Idea'
RFE/RL: Why didn't the United States and the other members of the six-party talks make sure those rules were included in the agreement? Aren't there standard rules, outlined by international organizations such as the IAEA that would tend to apply to verification?
Albright: The six parties excluded the International Atomic Energy Agency from this whole process of verification, and that's to me a bad idea. And also, when the IAEA does the verification, it comes with its own rules -- [as if to say,] "You take our rules or we don't participate." [In such a situation] there's pressure on all sides to say, "Here are the rules."
Here you've got a situation where there are no rules, and the United States wants this kind of rule, North Korea obviously wants fewer rules. So the six parties created this problem for themselves, and in that you can't blame either side.
RFE/RL: John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN and, before that, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, has accused the United States of rushing the negotiations and accepting a faulty agreement with North Korea. Is that so?
Albright: Anything Bolton does, I think he's wrong. So you know, it's rare when I see him say anything that's right. And also I feel some anger toward him because of his activities [as chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea], which totally failed. Confrontation, name-calling, sanctions -- they totally failed. It delayed coming to negotiations for years.
And so I find it a little outrageous that this guy who screwed everything up for years -- allowed North Korea to build nuclear weapons and promised he could stop them, and didn't -- and then to turn around and criticize those who are trying to do something quickly with the time remaining.
'A Good Deal'
RFE/RL: Nevertheless, doesn't the absence of the IAEA from the verification process indicate that the six parties are at least guilty of a sin of omission, and of rushing the process?
Albright: By not relying on the IAEA, I think the six parties have made their work much more complicated. And in that process it's going to, in the end, slow things down. But the deal itself is a good deal. Everybody's agreed that North Korea will verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons, and there's a principal of action-for-action, and incentives. It's not going to be quick, though. And I think the main thing the Bush administration can do with its remaining time [in office] is sort through this verification issue and get North Korea off the terrorism list, so the next administration can move on to the actual disarmament phase.
RFE/RL: The Bush administration leaves office in January. It certainly doesn't look as if the United States has much time to accomplish much more in the talks with North Korea, does it?
Albright: They don't have much time. And [U.S. negotiator Christopher] Hill took the initiative, got the support [of Bush], and has been trying to move quickly. And when you move quickly, you can make choices that then cause problems later on. So I think it's a sound deal, but now they have a problem they're going to have to solve. But both sides have reasons not to solve it in the next two months. It may change after the [U.S. presidential] election in November.
Clock Is Ticking
RFE/RL: What are those reasons that both sides may want to wait until after the elections?
Albright: One is: North Korea feels that it can press the Bush administration because [U.S. negotiators are] the ones who have a clock ticking, so [North Korea] can hold out for a little better deal on verification. The Bush administration, I don't think, wants to create divisions in the Republican Party right now over North Korea, which ultimately is over security, and it could reflect negatively on [Senator John] McCain [the Republican nominee for president], and also force McCain into saying things like, "I support President Bush on negotiations" that may anger parts of the Republican Party -- parts that think very highly of Bolton, for example. But I think the Bush administration doesn't have a lot of incentives to take North Korea off the terrorism list.
RFE/RL: Why wasn't the IAEA included in the talks for the sake of clarifying verification?
Albright: It's complicated. There's people in the United States who don't like the IAEA. They don't think verification's possible anyway. [There's] a lot of antipathy toward [IAEA Director Muhammad] El-Baradei in parts of our government. The North Koreans don't like the IAEA. So you have a kind of convergence where the IAEA was just excluded. And I think it was a mistake.
If the IAEA had been brought in, I think you could have convinced North Korea [that it should accept IAEA verification rules] because they understood that the IAEA was going to be involved in this, but when they were shown a way that they didn't have to have them involved, they grabbed it.