Apparently, the worry in Washington isn’t whether or not the U.S. can fight two wars at the same time (Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld says we can) but whether or not our government can simultaneously express two thoughts — one on North Korea and one on Iraq — that make sense. Already a bit wobbly on this front in claiming that there’s no crisis in North Korea, the White House stumbled a bit further this weekend in deciding to restrain the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The agency’s board of governors meets Monday in an emergency session to focus on Pyongyang’s continued violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Rather than back the IAEA’s mandate to report to the United Nations Security Council on Pyongyang’s recent expulsion of IAEA monitors, though, the White House has asked the agency to punt for at least another month.
Why beat back the U.N.’s usually gun-shy nuclear watchdog? The White House wants to avoid overloading the U.N. Security Council, which must consider Iraqi nonproliferation noncompliance later in January. Since getting Iraq right is prerequisite to firmness in enforcing nonproliferation in North Korea, collaring the IAEA from reporting, the White House reasons, is prudent.
The problem, however, is that while Washington seeks delay, South and North Korea, China, and Russia have already agreed to push ideas that paper over Pyongyang’s nuclear program — offers to reestablish earlier allied fuel-oil and nuclear bribes in exchange for yet another pledge from Pyongyang — this time to “resolve” its mysterious uranium bomb program. The South Koreans will press this case with senior Washington officials Monday. In several weeks, President-Elect Roh will talk up something similar when he visits Washington. These calls will press U.S. policymakers. Yet, giving in to this regional fix will not only undermine enforcement of the NPT in North Korea, but make it far more difficult to resolve what to do in January with Iraq or to cope later with Iran.
Rather than simply ask for more time, then, the White House needs to delimit the debate. At the very least, it should set three minimal, clear restrictions that track what the world’s already done with the next greatest nuclear violator — Iraq.
First, whether we strike a deal directly with North Korea or make demands against it at the U.N., Pyongyang must reestablish its credibility by going beyond what it previously agreed to do. Just as the U.N. demanded Saddam open up beyond what was required of him in previous U.N. resolutions, so too, Pyongyang must go beyond its earlier pledges in order to eliminate the most immediate sources of the current crisis — North Korea’s previously frozen nuclear reactor, its plutonium-laden spent fuel, and its reprocessing plant and fuel-fabrication facilities. Before any quid pro quo might be tendered — whether it’s more fuel oil, high-level envoys, or the suspension of economic sanctions — Pyongyang must visibly tear down these facilities and ship out the spent fuel. This should start immediately. The plants’ dismantlement could be verified by satellite imagery (initially, without field inspectors) and would eliminate the most immediate, likely route for Pyongyang to make more bombs. Surely, asking for anything less would only tempt Pyongyang to repeat its legendary pattern of nuclear cheating. This was tolerated before. It can’t be tolerated again.
Second, prior or simultaneous to any U.N. or Allied penalty suspension or granting of benefits, Pyongyang must open itself up to at least as much inspection as the U.N. has demanded of Saddam. The U.N., after all, had almost a decade of inspections to establish a database on all of Saddam’s covert and declared strategic-weapons efforts. The IAEA, in contrast, has only been able to conduct one routine examination of Pyongyang’s declared nuclear activities and that was ten years ago. Knowing far less than we do about Iraq, we are in far less of a position to trust or verify any dismantlement offer Pyongyang might make regarding its covert uranium project — an effort Pyongyang could easily split up and hide in several of its 8,000 or more caves. Our intelligence agencies estimate that Pyongyang may start producing uranium bombs in one or two years. If we are lucky, this might provide sufficient time to redeploy inspectors from Iraq to North Korea. And, again, like Iraq, Pyongyang’s compliance with the NPT should be judged not by what the inspectors can find, but rather by how much North Korea is willing to reveal.
Third, the U.S. and its friends must kill the two promised U.S.-designed power reactors. U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 forbade Iraq from acquiring any nuclear materials or equipment useful to make bombs. So too, the two U.S.-designed reactors, each of which can produce over 50 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium after the first year of normal operation, should be taken off the table. President Bush should simply announce that he is no longer willing to waive U.S. nuclear-nonproliferation laws to permit the technology and hardware transfers needed to complete these plants. This should spell the end of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) whose only unique purpose is to build the reactors. But this is no loss: Even if the machines were built, their power output is far too great for North Korea’s rickety electrical grid to absorb. Terminating their construction should simply be seen as part of the price Pyongyang must pay for violating the NPT.
Finally, and again as with Iraq, the U.S. and its supporters should get the U.N. to support these positions in a separate U.N. resolution. Even the weakest of actions there will help pull Pyongyang’s misbehavior from a regional scene, where the locals are all too eager to secure a deal in their time, onto an international stage where upholding the NPT, the IAEA, and the U.N. would make such pandering less tolerable. Then too, there’s the prospect of stronger actions, including U.N. authorization for interdicting North Korean weapons exports. This would hardly be all that would be needed. After all, the only sure fire path to nonproliferation in Korea is regime change in the North. But speaking more clearly about North Korea’s nuclear violations and going to the U.N. would certainly be a far better start than just keeping mum and hoping for the best.
— Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Best of Intentions: America’s Campaign Against Strategic Weapons Proliferation.