News Analysis: North Korean Talks leave question unanswered

Choe Sang-Hun – The International Herald Tribune

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2005
SEOUL Although the six-nation talks on North Korea ended Monday with a broadly worded, breakthrough statement on how to stop the North’s development of nuclear weapons, the question that almost scuttled the talks remains unresolved – and will haunt negotiators when they meet again in November.
The issue is simple: Should the international community allow North Korea to produce electricity with nuclear reactors?
Or, to pose the question another way: Does a nation claiming to represent globally acceptable norms have the right to deprive another country of the capacity to generate nuclear energy because that country is viewed widely as standing outside those international norms, or should the letter of international law prevail regardless of a country’s record?
If the North Korean nuclear issue is to be settled, this legal and moral conundrum will have to be settled somehow.
The North Korean government’s position is plain enough: Like Iran, it considers a nuclear program a kind of totemic emblem of its sovereignty – which it has long been eager for the rest of the world, the United States in particular, to recognize.
“The right to peaceful nuclear activity is not something we need somebody’s permission to have,” said North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan.
Iranian negotiators have made precisely the same point on numerous occasions.
There is legal support for this contention. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty guarantees a signatory country the right to peaceful nuclear activity as long as it adheres to nuclear safeguards rules like on-site inspections.
But for its part, the United States stands foursquare against North Korea’s assertions. Sovereignty, the Bush administration has implicitly argued, has nothing to do with it.
North Korea cannot be trusted with a nuclear reactor, U.S. officials and analysts say. Its 25-year-old nuclear program has lit few light bulbs, they argue.
In a joint statement Monday, North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and programs, rejoin the nuclear treaty and accept inspections. In return, the United States affirmed that it had no intention of attacking North Korea, would respect the North’s sovereignty and take steps to normalize ties with the North. The other four countries in the talks – China, Japan, South Korea and Russia – agreed to join the United States in providing the North with energy assistance.
The divide over whether the North should recieve a light-water nuclear reactor – a type that is less useful for weapons development – in return for giving up its existing nuclear facilities was so deep that the six countries agreed not to answer the question in their joint statement. The North asserted its right to peaceful nuclear energy. The others expressed their “respect,” but “agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of a light-water reactor.”
The question will remain a key sticking point in future negotiations, during which the six parties will try to work out the details of implementing the agreed principles. Although it took almost two years to produce the joint statement, experts say that the truly difficult talks are yet to come.
“To talk of ‘a peaceful North Korean nuclear industry’ is to talk of an imaginary animal, like a unicorn,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research facility in Washington. “It’s like talking about a ‘peaceful chemical weapons program’ or a ‘peaceful intermediate-range ballistic missile.”‘
The North’s insistence on the right to peaceful nuclear activity, no matter how unacceptable it may sound to U.S. officials, puts negotiators in Beijing in a quandary: Does the United States have the right to decide which countries can have nuclear reactors and which cannot as it claims the right to defend itself from a nuclear threat?
“Obviously, the United States does not have the final say on who has the right to pursue civil nuclear energy programs,” said Robert Einhorn, the top nonproliferation official during the Clinton administration. “But it is a participant in the six-party talks, and it is entitled to take the position that it will not agree to a solution that does not include a North Korean renunciation of civilian nuclear energy programs.
“Whether such a position is a good position to take is, of course, another story,” he added.
Talks over North Korea’s nuclear program, coinciding with the dispute between the United States and Iran over nuclear power, will have immediate implications on Washington’s efforts to stop what it calls “a crisis” of noncompliance of the nuclear treaty, a growing list of what the United States views as countries with nuclear weapons and potential ties to terrorists.
“A compromise by North Korea would negatively affect Iran’s positions,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Speaking in New York last week, President George W. Bush indicated some flexibility.
“It’s a right of a government to want to have a civilian nuclear program, but there ought to be guidelines in which they be allowed to have that civilian nuclear program,” he said. Bush was alluding to Iran, but the question is equally pertinent to North Korea.
There are similarities and differences between the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Iran has signed the nuclear treaty, while North Korea quit it in 2003. Both Iran and North Korea are suspected of enriching uranium for weapons, U.S. officials say. But unlike Iran, North Korea is widely believed to have already made weapons with its plutonium-based nuclear program.
North Korea said that although it has used its nuclear facilities to make atomic bombs in self-defense against U.S. threats, the program’s original purpose was to produce energy. Thus, it demanded last week that the United States build it a new light-water nuclear reactor to generate power as a condition of dismantling existing nuclear facilities and rejoining the nuclear treaty.
The issue has created delicate fissures among members of the talks. Washington and Japan oppose North Korea having a civilian nuclear program. South Korea pushed for, and appears to have succeeded in, revising a draft of the joint statement so that it keeps “the window of opportunity open for North Korea to have a light-water reactor” once the country wins international trust by returning to the nuclear treaty and accepting UN inspections.
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