After the North Korea nuclear breakthrough: Compliance or confrontation?

Originally published



The North Korea nuclear talks finally achieved a breakthrough on 13 February 2007, when the six parties struck a general denuclearisation deal. Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and admit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors within 60 days in exchange for energy aid and security assurances. Many vital details must be settled by further talks, and that first deadline has passed without the North yet admitting the inspectors. Although it has said it will within 30 days, the fear has been raised that the deal may prove another failed attempt to bring Pyongyang into the international mainstream. However, the U.S. and other members of the six-party talks should continue to push forward by adopting and putting forward a serious, phased negotiation strategy that offers specific economic rewards and security assurances for specific actions taken by the North to achieve denuclearisation.

While the 13 February deal was very much a step in the right direction, it nevertheless offers more questions than answers. Critical details, such as a timetable for denuclearisation, remain to be worked out. It will take time to overcome six decades of enmity and mistrust between the U.S. and North Korea. Convincing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear card, which it may see as the ultimate guarantee for regime survival, will certainly be difficult. The stalling of implementation due to delay in freeing up the North Korean funds at Macao's Banco Delta Asia (BDA) illustrates how seemingly simple steps can become obstacles that tie up the whole process. Despite the challenges and uncertainties, however, resolving the nuclear issue is vital for regional peace and stability.

The 13 February deal has been criticised in the U.S. Conservatives accused President George W. Bush of rewarding North Korea for conducting a nuclear test on 9 October 2006, while Democrats said the deal was little different from the Agreed Framework his predecessor negotiated in 1994 and which collapsed in 2002. Many expressed scepticism about whether the North intends to give up its nuclear program. Despite the ambiguities and uncertainties, the agreement is a preliminary step toward resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. A comprehensive, phased, negotiated settlement is still the best way of convincing the North to give up its nuclear weapons.

The "Actions for Actions" format of the 13 February deal is the right strategy but the follow-on phases are conspicuously vague, with only the general statement that the North will receive 950,000 tons of fuel oil upon full denuclearisation. The U.S., South Korea, China and Japan now need to put forth a detailed, comprehensive offer for the second and subsequent phases - and back that offer with a credible threat of coercive measures should Pyongyang renege on the deal. In November 2004, Crisis Group proposed an eight-step, phased negotiations process that specified the rewards the North would receive in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program. With only slight modifications, it remains the best strategy for achieving denuclearisation. Now that the process is in motion, it is time to continue on to the more difficult steps. The roadmap should look like this:

1. Verified freeze of Yongbyon in exchange for the funds which have now been unfrozen and 50,000 tons of fuel oil.

2. Energy planning in exchange for declaration of nuclear programs.

3. Energy provision in exchange for signatures and access.

4. Rehabilitation and relief in exchange for agreed dismantlement.

5. Aid and lifting of UN sanctions in exchange for dismantlement.

6. Security assurances in exchange for weapons and highly-enriched-uranium (HEU) declarations.

7. International financial institution (IFI) preparations in exchange for HEU commitments.

8. Liaison offices and normalisation in exchange for conclusive verification.

Given North Korea's history of breaking international agreements and the value it places on its nuclear program, any offer should incorporate stringent verification processes. It should also identify appropriate coercive measures as the price of default on promises - normally sanctions, but not excluding, in an extreme case like an attempt to transfer nuclear material to another country or non-state actor, the use of military force. Resolving the nuclear issue must remain the top priority, with other important issues such as human rights violations, economic openings and conventional arms, set aside until denuclearisation is achieved. Negotiations with North Korea are invariably difficult; nevertheless, a comprehensive, phased negotiation strategy offers the best chance of achieving denuclearisation.