This column was originally published in The Washington Post on Nov. 9, 1994.
To strengthen the deal with North Korea
The Clinton administration is hailing the Oct. 21 agreement between the United States and North Korea as the beginning of the end of a perilous nuclear crisis that has dogged President Clinton since his inauguration. But this is a crisis that Washington may very well be forced to revisit before long. That's why it would be worthwhile for the American people to take a closer look now at the unprecedented arrangement that has been struck between the United States and the hostile, heavily armed North Korean regime.
To begin with, they should consider the highly unusual personal pledge quietly made by President Clinton that went far beyond the formal agreement signed in Geneva: a commitment to spend billions of U.S. tax dollars if need be to supply the communist dictatorship with fuel assistance and nuclear power technology.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher is visiting South Korea this week. While there, he should take steps to shore up America's precarious standing in this deal.
The North's past behavior suggests that Americans should consider this agreement as tentative at best. Its complex, quid pro quo requirements assume good faith and reciprocity on the part of Pyongyang. But North Korea has a long and consistent track record of reneging on promises made to Washington.
For the most part, the deal appears "front loaded" in favor of North Korea. For the long term, a consortium of nations is responsible for constructing two light water reactors for North Korea that would be less capable of producing weapons-grade fuel than Pyongyang's existing technology. The construction project's price tag conservatively is estimated to be about $4 billion, with South Korea and Japan paying most of the bills.
For the short term, the same consortium will assist North Korea's faltering economy by providing very large quantities of free oil. In addition to leading the international energy assistance consortium, Washington has pledged to ease its longstanding trade embargo and move toward diplomatic relations with the North.
Apparently at the urging of North Korean negotiators, the Clinton administration went even farther. In an unusual Oct. 20 letter to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, President Clinton pledged that American taxpayers would pick up the multibillion-dollar tab for both the reactors and the fuel aid in the event the consortium fails to do so -- "subject to the approval of the U.S. Congress."
The administration tried to minimize press, public and congressional attention to this unusual letter. It was not released to Congress, the press and the public until Oct. 26 -- as media focus on the agreement began to fade.
According to the agreement, Pyongyang promises to freeze its nuclear program immediately and allow for limited scrutiny by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This is a plus, since, under the IAEA's watchful eye, the North's Yongbyon reprocessing facility could not be used to turn spent fuel into weapons-grade nuclear material undetected. Still, it is notable that, under an agreement ratified by North and South Korea in 1992, both sides pledged not to possess reprocessing facilities. Thus, Pyongyang currently is in violation of that accord.
In phase two of the deal, the North pledges to move its large cache of spent fuel rods out of the country, precluding any chance to reprocess them. Pyongyang would then also allow for "special inspections" by the IAEA. However, these pledges would not be fulfilled until key nuclear components are delivered for the first reactor -- a point in the construction project estimated to be at least five to eight years away.
North Korea already is obliged to allow special inspections as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). When the IAEA first surveyed key North Korean nuclear facilities in 1992, it found evidence the North was lying about its production of enriched plutonium and requested special inspections of two suspect sites. Caught red-handed, Pyongyang defied the U.N. body and threatened early last year to pull out of the NPT. Mounting tensions led to talks with the Clinton administration and the Oct. 21 agreement.
In the final stage of the deal, and once the second reactor has been completed, the North promises to dismantle all its nuclear facilities that exist today. This phase is estimated to be at least 10 years into the future.
To sum up: Over the past two years, Pyongyang has concluded nuclear agreements with both the IAEA and Seoul that it has failed to fulfill. Now the Clinton administration has offered it attractive economic and political benefits and granted the North up to 10 years to fulfill pledges it has already refused to honor.
More important, the agreement allows the North to keep its nuclear leverage, strengthening Pyongyang's hand both diplomatically and militarily. And for the coming decade or longer, North Korea's ability to build nuclear weapons will remain intact, so it can, at any time, turn its back on the agreement and move to build bombs.
Given all this, Washington should move swiftly to strengthen its hand in the agreement. During Secretary of State Christopher's visit to Seoul he should:
* Announce the appointment of a respected and experienced American as a presidential envoy who will soon be dispatched to Pyongyang to deal directly with the leadership there. Had this been done months ago, perhaps the United States could have crafted a better agreement. The Geneva accord was signed by representatives of the U.S. State Department and the North Korean Foreign Ministry. Washington should move quickly to deal directly with the small circle that monopolizes virtually all power and decision-making in Pyongyang.
* Call on the North to resume substantive, high-level talks with Seoul immediately.
* Reaffirm the importance of close U.S. coordination with the South Korean government. There is a growing popular belief in South Korea that the North has outmaneuvered Washington and marginalized the South's role. This could cause needless frictions in an alliance that has been very close and productive for many years.
Richard V. Allen, who was national security adviser to President Reagan, is chairman of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. Daryl M. Plunk is a senior fellow at the foundation.