KYOTO — The fourth round of six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear-weapons aspirations resumed Tuesday in Beijing after a five-week recess. One main sticking point, seemingly still unresolved, centers around North Korea’s “right” to have a peaceful nuclear-energy program.
Pyongyang says it will never give up this right and expects Washington to resume construction of the nuclear light-water reactors (LWRs) promised under the now-defunct 1994 Agreed Framework. Washington, while stating that the issue of a peaceful nuclear energy program sometime in the future may not be a complete “show stopper,” has rejected the idea of resuming LWR construction, indicating that neither the United States nor any of the other parties — China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea — are prepared to finance such an effort. While it has not said as much, there is an offer on the table from Seoul to provide North Korea with the same amount of power that would have been generated by the LWRs, presumably as compensation for letting this program die a graceful death.
As the talks resume, it may be useful to try to understand the motivation behind these conflicting stands. In discussing Pyongyang’s reasons, of course, we can only make an educated guess based on its past statements and actions.
A number of factors likely lie behind Pyongyang’s insistence on pursuing a peaceful nuclear-energy program. Primary among them is disagreement of the other five parties on this issue. Beijing, Seoul and Moscow are on record supporting this “right.” Washington and Tokyo oppose it, arguing that North Korea gave up this right when it cheated on its prior agreements and walked away from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A failure of the five to speak with one voice on this issue presents too tempting a target for Pyongyang to pass up.
Another strong possibility is that maintaining a “peaceful” nuclear program is a hedging strategy aimed at preserving a future nuclear-weapons option, even if its current programs are eventually abandoned. As long as the North has direct access to spent fuel rods, it can always eject International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and resume reprocessing activities to acquire more weapons-grade plutonium. This is, of course, exactly why Washington and Tokyo do not want to see any type of nuclear energy programs in North Korea.
The North is likely also raising the nuclear energy issue as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the real problem, which is ending both its acknowledged plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program and its once-acknowledged and now denied uranium-based program. It may even be aimed at providing some political cover for the latter.
Of late, Chinese interlocutors seem to be making a distinction between a weapons-related highly-enriched uranium program and an energy-related uranium enrichment program. This may represent a possible face-saving way to acknowledge the presence of centrifuges that Pyongyang is known to have purchased without acknowledging yet another violation or lie.
Adding the nuclear-energy demand may also be a delaying tactic driven by greed and/or by more sinister motives. The more problems one lays on the table, the higher the anticipated reward for cooperating. This has been a long-standing North Korean tactic. At a minimum, it is likely to demand power plants, not just power-transmission lines emanating from the South (which could be cut off).
More troublesome is the view by many in Washington that Pyongyang has no intention of ever giving up its nuclear-weapons program but recognizes that simply staying away from the talks is no longer an option. Therefore the smart thing to do is to show up but to keep piling on demands that one or more of the parties find unacceptable, in order to indefinitely stall while producing as many nuclear weapons as possible.
There is another factor that can’t be overlooked, and that is North Korean pride. As a sovereign state, Pyongyang argues, it has as much right to nuclear energy as South Korea and Japan. Washington’s allegations that it cannot be trusted to have such a program just make matters worse.
It would appear that the only way to deal with all these possible motives and still achieve Washington’s long-term objective is for the other five parties (absent Pyongyang) to come to a common position regarding the nuclear-energy program, one that agrees that such a program could exist, in principle, as soon as North Korea comes into full compliance with IAEA safeguards and fully accounts for all its past nuclear activities — this is the same standard followed by Seoul, Tokyo and all states with peaceful energy programs. All must also agree, and publicly and firmly state, that the Agreed Framework LWR program is dead and will not be resurrected.
The other five nations also need to set a deadline for some form of meaningful progress on denuclearization to restrict the benefits currently gained by stalling. Absent some sort of progress, each must warn Pyongyang that its current level of diplomatic and economic interaction with North Korea will not be sustainable. They must also make it clear that if the current diplomatic process does not yield some positive results, then the only logical action is to take things to the next higher diplomatic level; namely, the United Nations Security Council.