Reactors and their related facilities in North Korea need to be made safe before they can be safely dismantled. The last safety management training session for North Korean officials by international experts was in July 2002. Disasters (natural or man-made) of much lesser magnitude than the Fukushima tsunami and earthquake could result in an unstable nuclear complex, and a meltdown at Yongbyon would have broad implications given the plant’s proximity to the Asian mainland.
Second, engage on nuclear deterrence. The North must be convinced that it is in the worst of two worlds with its handful of weapons — that this cache, absent a demonstrated long-range missile reentry capability and any evidence of warhead miniaturization, does not come close to a credible nuclear deterrent. The North gets no added security from these weapons. But the recent string of provocations against the South suggests that Pyongyang may believe it is invulnerable to retaliation, thanks to its nuclear capabilities. This erroneous belief is a recipe for escalation as Seoul is determined to respond militarily and lethally to the next provocation. Responsible parties need to sit down with the North and explain the ABCs of nuclear deterrence.
Third, nuclear energy should be off the table. What the North has wanted in the past two agreements is light-water nuclear reactors. The 1994 agreement promised two and started a process to build them. The 2005 agreement followed the spirit of the 1994 agreement. In the aftermath of Fukushima, light-water reactors should not be in North Korea’s future. They were never a viable energy source for the North — it would take two decades to build the necessary power grids to avoid a meltdown — and it would not be possible to know whether Pyongyang was operating these things safely. It would be in everyone’s interests to find an alternative energy quid pro quo for denuclearization. When I participated in the six-party talks, one alternative put forth by the South Koreans was conventional electricity. The recent talks between Russia and North Korea about gas pipelines might be another.
These ideas would meet with strong resistance from Japan and South Korea because engagement on these issues might suggest de facto recognition by Washington of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. It might make sense to engage China and Russia to play more active roles. Allies should know that the goal of any U.S. negotiations remains complete and irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and related programs, and these new avenues of negotiation may help us get there. But not engaging in a pragmatic manner on nuclear safety and deterrence could spell disaster as U.S. diplomats negotiate endlessly on the same intractable issues that have plagued our pursuit of Pyongyang’s weapons programs for 25 years.
The writer is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 and as U.S. deputy head of delegation for the six-party talks in 2005.