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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (July 26, 2005)

Living with a Nuclear North Korea

Brad Glosserman  (Director of Research at Pacific Forum CSIS)

All participants in the Six Party Talks - including North Korea - say that the goal of the negotiations is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Don't bet on it. An unblinkered assessment of the various interests forces one conclusion: the world must prepare for a "gray" North Korea, a nation with a suspected but unconfirmed limited nuclear capability.

This conclusion is based on three premises. First, Pyongyang will do everything possible to preserve some nuclear weapons capability. For more than four decades, North Korea has sought to acquire or develop a nuclear weapon. This interest is understandable, at least from a North Korean perspective. Pyongyang was threatened by the U.S. with atomic bombs during the Korean War. It is the ultimate piece of military hardware for a government committed to a "military first" policy. Nuclear weapons are an important status symbol for a regime desperate for legitimacy. Building a bomb suggests North Korean technical superiority over South Korea. Finally, it is seen by North Korean strategists as the guarantor of regime survival.

Any one or combination of these rationalizations drives North Korean behavior. Given North Korean history and suspicions, it is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang would abandon its nuclear programs and give up all the weapons it has developed.

Second, despite their rhetorical commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, neither China nor South Korea is ready to enforce the strict verification regime required to eliminate all North Korean weapons. Neither country wants North Korea to demonstrate conclusively that it has nuclear weapons; neither, however, do they want to push Pyongyang so hard to denuclearize that it is destabilized. Both wish to preserve the North Korean government and do not want the chaos and uncertainty a "no tolerance" policy would create.

There are three ways North Korea could have developed nuclear weapons. The first is with fissile material generated prior to the signing of the Agreed Framework in 1994. According to that agreement, this material would have been accounted for only prior to the delivery of critical components needed for the operation of light-water reactors built by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Most intelligence agencies estimate this is enough for 1-4 weapons.

The second source is the 8,000 fuel rods frozen by the Agreed Framework, and recently reprocessed by the North. Some additional material may have been generated since the collapse of the Agreed Framework. The third source is the enriched uranium program that the U.S. has charged North Korea with developing in violation of the Agreed Framework.

North Korea is probably ready to give up the second and third sources. It agreed to turn over the fuel rods in the Agreed Framework and while it denies having a clandestine uranium program, Pyongyang has reportedly asked what it could receive for abandoning it.

That leaves the plutonium acquired before 1993 and the weapons allegedly created with it. North Korea is unlikely to give this up. Pyongyang's inclination to clutch at this option is strengthened by doubts whether the IAEA can determine how much fissile material was diverted from the North Korean nuclear energy program prior to 1993. China and South Korea are likely to accept this: Combine the North's belief in the value of such weapons with Chinese and South Korean reluctance to push the North to the brink and you have the basis for a compromise. Indeed, Seoul and Beijing have lived with just this situation - a North Korea with a few crude nuclear devices - since 1994. When asked point blank at conferences, Chinese and South Koreans have said that they have lived with a "gray nuclear North Korea" for over a decade. Since China has a permanent veto in the United Nations Security Council, the authority to which the U.S. would turn if the Six-Party Talks prove fruitless, the threat of international sanctions looks toothless.

Thus, the third critical point: the U.S. is going to have to accept this, too. China and South Korea (and Russia) will not back the U.S. demand for "complete verifiable" nuclear disarmament. In these circumstances, it is Washington, not Pyongyang, that risks isolation for pushing too hard. (The Japanese could come down either way.) Doing so could alienate South Korea and marginalize the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, the real strategic prize. Moreover, accepting the ambiguity surrounding the original plutonium is merely going back to the status quo ante of the Agreed Framework.

By this logic, a six-party agreement would be a gradual process that dismantles the North Korean nuclear infrastructure, starting with the 8,000 fuel rods and then moves on to the disputed uranium enrichment program. Dismantlement by the North would be matched by economic aid from the South, humanitarian assistance from other parties and diplomatic recognition from the U.S. The process would be long and carefully calibrated, but by the end the North would be left with whatever nuclear weapons had been built from the fissile material generated before the Agreed Framework and had been hidden.

The chief concern is whether this deal would be consistent with the NPT. Reportedly, the IAEA will have difficulty providing a complete accounting of North Korea's oldest plutonium stocks; that fudge could preserve the credibility of the agency and the treaty, and discourage other countries from trying to copy North Korea.

This is not a happy solution, but it is, by this logic, the best and most realistic solution available. In many ways, it is an updated Agreed Framework: it kicks the can of complete dismantlement down the road. The critical question is whether any such deal can be sold in the U.S. given the political beating that agreement has endured and the image of North Korea in Washington.

(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

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