Bush Is Right to Get Tough with North Korea
Supporters of Bill Clinton's 1994 deal with Pyongyang - in which the U.S. gave billions of dollars of energy aid to get North Korea to open up to international nuclear inspections - have been on edge of late. What frightens them is the prospect that President Bush, after his recent denunciation of North Korea, might actually enforce the agreement. In fact, North Korea has been in violation of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations ever since it announced its intention to withdraw from these treaties a decade ago. To keep it from pulling out, however, the Clinton administration cut North Korea a deal. The latter was to freeze activity at its nuclear sites and pledge to open itself up to full international inspections. In exchange, the U.S. offered North Korea two large, modern power reactors and - until these plants were completed - 500,000 tons of heating oil a year, nearly half of North Korea's heating oil requirement.
Central to this understanding was that inspections would be tied to the reactors' construction. The IAEA has already determined that North Korea's original declaration of what nuclear materials it has produced (including weapons-usable plutonium) are inaccurate. The CIA, meanwhile, believes North Korea has at least one or more bombs' worth of nuclear weapons material secreted away. Inspections are needed to ensure it is not hiding this material and that it is out of the bomb making business.
When will these inspections take place? Under the deal, North Korea must come into full compliance with its international inspection obligations "when a significant proportion" of the promised reactors are completed and before any key nuclear parts are delivered. Those managing the reactors' construction estimate that a significant portion of the project will be completed by May 2005.
That seems like a long ways away but it's not. In fact, the director of the IAEA has announced that it will take his agency at least three to four years after Pyongyang grants full access to all nuclear sites to determine if it is making or hiding nuclear weapons materials. This estimate is largely based on the agencies experience in the early 1990s when it had to account for South Africa's covert nuclear production. This effort took two years in a country that, unlike North Korea, was fully cooperative. Working backwards from May 2005 and assuming a four-year estimate, Pyongyang should have allowed full inspections nine
months ago. Even with a low-end inspection estimate of three years, Pyongyang must open up within the next three months.
That doesn't leave much time. Pyongyang is in what lawyers call "anticipatory breach" - meaning, if one knows that a party to a contract has no intention of meeting its terms, then the other party is under no obligation to continue complying. One could, of course, delay the reactors' construction and put off when Pyongyang would have to open up to inspections. But this is not what's planned. If anything, the understanding now is that the group building the reactors - Korean Peninsula Development Organization - will begin pouring concrete no later than August. These preparations are going ahead even though North Korea has so far refused to agree to a schedule of inspections and construction activity as required by contract.
Pouring concrete without inspections, though, is risky, especially since there is reason to believe that North Korea is conducting a covert nuclear program. In a letter last week to the president asking him to certify if North Korea is making nuclear weapons, Reps. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.), Edward Markey (D., Mass.) and Ben Gilman (R., N.Y.) cite reports that North Korea has operated a deep underground uranium processing plant at Mount Chun-Ma since 1989. Uranium ore is trucked in and what's produced is helicoptered out. The two most worrisome explanations are that Pyongyang is making fuel for a covert weapons production reactor, or that it is processing uranium for enrichment for direct use in weapons. The only way to find out is through full access.
Pouring the reactor's foundation before inspectors gain full right of entry is only likely to pressure them to rush their work once they gain access. This much is clear: When the concrete begins to pour, hundreds of workers will be on site. As more parts and equipment arrive and the numbers of employees mount, idling them will become increasingly impractical. Under the terms of the 1994 deal, the key parts needed to complete the reactors cannot be delivered until the IAEA has given North Korea a clean bill of health. When we reach this point, though, the desire to sustain thousands of workers and billions of dollars in contracts is almost certain to trump any demand for a thorough (i.e. lengthy) inspections.
Given the lack of oversight, do we really want to give Pyongyang two U.S.-designed reactors capable of producing 50 bombs worth of weapons-grade plutonium in the first 15 months of operation? Defenders of the deal insist that North Korea could not extract this material without being detected. Perhaps. But at this point, if it went ahead and built its arsenal, how much more would it need? And what could we do to stop North Korea?
All of this suggests why President Bush should stay the course he has already set and insist that North Korea let inspectors in before the concrete is poured. This may not satisfy those who originally crafted the 1994 deal. They now want to negotiate a new bargain. But before we do, we should enforce the deal we have.