Now that the US has released the $25 million in frozen funds sought by North Korea, the Kim Jong-Il regime will start shutting down its Yongbyon reactor in accordance with the six-party agreement. That process starts next week, when a hastily-arranged conference with the IAEA begins next Tuesday, assuming that the North Koreans throw up no further roadblocks to the process:
North Korea said Monday that its dispute with the United States over $25 million frozen in a bank in Macao had been resolved, and that it would begin to carry out its much-delayed promise to shut down its main nuclear plant.
The first test of the North Korean commitment to stop and seal its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, south of Pyongyang, the capital, and an adjacent fuel-reprocessing plant, will come when officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency begin five days of negotiations on Tuesday in North Korea.
The agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring arm, and North Korean officials will discuss a timetable for shutting down the reactor and technical details of monitoring and verification. Ever since the first suspicion of a North Korean nuclear weapons program surfaced in the early 1990s, the agency and North Korea have bickered over how much access the agency should have to nuclear facilities and data in the isolated country.
This could represent a major foreign-policy victory for the Bush administration, if it goes according to plan. Certainly the White House could use some good news, and if it can verifiably end operations at Yongbyon and close out Pyongyang’s plutonium program, it will deserve the credit. They stuck to a multilateral formula that appears to have produced real results with verification, an improvement over previous efforts.
This agreement still leaves questions about North Korea’s reported highly-enriched uranium program, questions which US negotiator Christopher Hill left open last week:
If Hill raised the ticklish issue of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in any detail, he was not letting on. And if he came up with a proposal for the US simply to buy up North Korea’s nuclear inventory, as widely reported in South Korea, he was not about to confirm or deny anything to that effect.
Hill did, however, appear anxious to convey the impression of having talked about highly enriched uranium without actually using the term. It was, after all, the HEU issue that torpedoed the Geneva agreement of 1994 when his predecessor, James Kelly, alleged after visiting Pyongyang nearly five years ago that a top North Korean had indeed acknowledged the existence of a secret HEU program.
“We did discuss the need to have a comprehensive list of all nuclear programs,” said Hill. For good measure, he added, “And, of course, all means all.”
Did we buy up Kim’s nuclear inventory as part of the deal? That wouldn’t have been a bad idea, as long as we could verify that he didn’t produce any more nuclear material to use in a later extortion scheme. It would have provided Pyongyang with some needed hard currency and perhaps a little face-saving dodge to soothe the humiliation of giving up his nuclear program under pressure from the entire Pacific Rim.
The US sweetened the deal in two subtle ways. First, we sent Hill to North Korea for some direct negotiations, which Kim wanted to establish the DPRK as a significant entity, at least in his own mind. Hill apparently allowed the North Koreans to set the timing and the agenda to show even more deference. Secondly, when we did release the frozen funds, we did so through North Korean bank accounts to establish their bona fides in the international banking system. Both efforts appealed to what seems like the biggest case of an inferiority complex outside of radical Islam.
If these efforts pay off in a denuclearized North Korea, they amount to a cheap price to pay indeed. If they do not, we have not lost much in the transaction, and we can continue to pressure Kim to change, or the DPRK to change leaders.