Enforce Pyongyang's Nuclear Pledge
It appears the Bush administration's resistance to rushing into a missile deal with North Korea has paid off. The North has announced it will extend its missile test moratorium until 2003 if President Bush will resume "progress toward better relations." This allows the administration more time to review its options. But there is one issue that cannot be put off - the verification of North Korea's compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty. Insisting on starting the verification process now is critical to sound relations with Pyongyang, and the only sure way to reduce North Korea's potential for mass destruction.
The North's full compliance with the NPT was postponed by the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, negotiated by the Clinton administration. This came after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in verifying North Korea's initial nuclear material report, discovered North Korea had surreptitiously separated plutonium for bombs and had lied about it. When the inspectors wanted to look further - it wasn't clear how many bombs' worth the North had separated - North Korea blocked the inspectors and threatened to quit the treaty.
To induce the North to stay in the treaty, and to freeze their indigenous plutonium production plants, the United States promised them two large power reactors (called light water reactors, or LWRs). It didn't let them off the hook, however; it only postponed full compliance with the IAEA until such time as a "significant portion" of the LWRs had been completed. At the time - in 1994 - this was thought to be a few years in the future, which would have been by now had the target construction schedule been met. The question is, how long do we continue construction of the LWRs without any sign of DPRK compliance with the IAEA?
North Korea can't get "key" nuclear components until they comply. But these parts comprise perhaps 15 percent of the total. By agreement "significant portion" includes quite a lot -- fabrication of major reactor components for the first LWR unit; delivery of essential non-nuclear components, including turbines and generators; construction of major buildings including the reactor building and containment structure to the point suitable for the introduction of the reactor itself and steam generators; and some civil construction and fabrication and delivery of components for the second LWR unit. The organization in charge of the project now estimates the project will reach this point in 36 months.
Thirty-six months also turns out to be the lowest IAEA estimate for how long it will take to assess compliance if it gets the North's full cooperation. The figure takes account of the agency's experience in verifying the South African nuclear material stocks, after that country gave up its nuclear weapons, and cooperated fully with the IAEA. Without such cooperation the verification process cannot work at all.
In other words, unless North Korea opens up its nuclear sites and records to full inspections now, there is no chance they will come into full compliance when they promised to do when a significant portion of the project is will be completed. So far, North Korea hasn't cooperated and no one thinks they will really open up. The question is, how do we react?
The answer of the Clinton administration was to treat the Agreed Framework verification provision as if it only required the North to start complying at the "significant portion" completion point. But the Agreed Framework says, "When a significant portion of the LWR project is completed," that North Korea will come into "full compliance." This means North Korea must open up fully to IAEA inspectors now.
Are we going to continue indulging the North in their foot-dragging on IAEA verification? What is more important to do, continue with the LWR project or enforce the Agreed Framework's verification provision? These questions are the ones the president's current review of Korea policy must answer.
Common sense suggests that there be a pause in the reactors' construction. Certainly, if it is likely that one party will not perform on a contract it relieves the other party of its corresponding obligations. If a man promises to be in Chicago on a certain flight, and you know he didn't get on the plane, you don't have to rush to the airport to meet him, even if you promised to do so. In the North Korean context it means, we know they can't possibly reach full compliance when a "significant portion" of the project is done because they haven't even started cooperating with the IAEA. As such, there is no point in continuing to build until they start complying.
There's also another reason to demand Pyongyang open up fully to IAEA inspectors as it promised to do: LWRs, while billed as "proliferation resistant," are still too dangerous to turn over to anyone we suspect of planning to stay in the bomb business. The large LWRs can produce large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium - enough for dozens of bombs in the first year. There has unfortunately been a lot of misinformation and confusion on this point, including among our allies.
It needs to be added that even our allies think that when push comes to shove, we will compromise the verification process rather than risk further antagonizing the North. That is certainly what the North is counting on. If we do, we will teach
them (and Iraq and Iran and others) the wrong lesson. Moreover, if we continue construction despite North Korea's noncompliance, we will have a much harder time getting South Korea and Japan to go along with enforcement later. Our allies, who are paying for the project, will ask why we didn't act before they had invested the better part of $5 billion dollars and considerable domestic political capital.
They are already pressing us not to insist on exacting North Korea's compliance with the Agreed Framework because that will undermine its willingness to enter into a missile verification agreement. Pressure may be building to cut a missile deal with Pyongyang. But we shouldn't expect North Korea to abide by it unless we insist that they stick to their deal on nuclear materials first.