Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday April 14th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore


If you are confused and/or alarmed by stories out of the Korean peninsula these days, you can be forgiven. Almost every day there are reports of threats by North Korean to attack South Korea and the United States, perhaps with nuclear weapons. I don’t have all the answers, but I can give you context and some history.


First and foremost Kim Jong un, who succeeded his father just 15 months ago, wants to survive - along with the despotic dynasty founded by his grandfather in 1948. There have been recent reports that the North Korean military was split over his succession and Kim is therefore trying to prove to his own generals that he is sufficiently tough. This makes sense in that neither of his two most important neighbors is deliberately trying to undermine him. A disintegrating North Korea would be a problem the Chinese definitely don’t want. And the dirty little secret is that for all the talk of reunification of the two Koreas, the South Koreans privately fear that would be destabilizing and extremely expensive.


The latest round of North Korean bluster is ostensibly over new U.N. sanctions imposed because of Pyongyang’s recent nuclear tests, along with its usual pique over annual U.S-South Korean military exercises. The inflammatory rhetoric would be unremarkable but for one new element- North Korea now has at least a few nuclear devices and possibly the missiles to deliver them as far as the U.S. Pacific base on Guam.


North Korea’s leaders have long equated becoming a nuclear power with their regime’s survival - even before President George W. Bush famously linked them with Iraq and Iran as part of his “ axis of evil.” Twenty years ago North Korea decided to reprocess spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor to produce plutonium – the key ingredient in one type of nuclear weapon. (The other type uses uranium.) The North Koreans also announced they were pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - because it prohibited such reprocessing. President Bill Clinton threatened military action if the North proceeded with its plans and this led to negotiations which produced something called the Agreed Framework, signed by both Washington and Pyongyang in October 1994.

These were its main elements:

- North Korea would freeze operation of facilities suspected of being part of a nuclear weapons program.

- It would remain a signatory to the NPT and its nuclear facilities would be put under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, including the presence of on-site inspectors.

- The U.S. and an international consortium would help North Korea develop a peaceful nuclear energy program and in the meantime would provide 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually to meet existing energy needs.

- The U.S. and North Korea were committed to normalizing relations and ultimately exchanging ambassadors.

 That was the deal. And under the watch of the IAEA inspectors the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon was frozen and no plutonium was produced for eight years.

However in 2002, the George W. Bush administration received credible evidence that the North Koreans were cheating. It seems that in the late 1990’s the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, the infamous A.Q. Khan, sold the North Koreans the components and materials for developing nuclear weapons using uranium. This would have eventually made North Korea a nuclear power – though had it not been frozen, its plutonium program would have done this more quickly.


After confronting the North Koreans with the evidence of their perfidy, the Bush administration stopped its own compliance with the Agreed Framework and cut off the oil shipments. It also refused any further high level talks. North Korea responded by unfreezing its plutonium reprocessing facilities, withdrawing from the NPT and kicking the IAEA Inspectors out. When it conducted its first successful nuclear test four years later in 2006, American intelligence concluded that the explosion was powered by plutonium. That meant it came from the program that had been frozen in 1994 and restarted in 2002.


If it were simply a business deal, President Bush would have been completely justified in scuttling the Agreed Framework. But in the real world of nuclear politics the United States doesn’t have the luxury of being “shocked” by the questionable ethics or treacherous tactics of its enemies.


In 2002, when the covert uranium program was discovered, North Korea’s plutonium program was frozen and under IAEA inspections. So rather than walking away, what if the Bush administration had instead re-opened negotiations with the North to demand that this once secret uranium facility be placed under the same inspection regime as the plutonium program? Think of it this way - if a dangerous felon refuses to conform to prison rules, do you solve the problem by kicking him out of jail? That effectively, is what the Bush administration did with North Korea.


President Bush declared at the time that he gave up on the Agreed Framework because “the (Clinton) strategy didn’t work.” But underlying the decision to refuse new negotiations with the North Koreans was the long held belief among hard-line conservatives going back to the days of the Cold War, that negotiating with your enemies just rewards them for their bad behavior.


I understand that American presidents can’t be dragged into negotiations by every tin-pot dictator and I am not advocating that the U.S. and South Korea instantly capitulate to the capricious threats of Kim Jong un. This past week even North Korea’s number one ally China, implicitly accused the North of unnecessarily escalating tensions. This suggests a more likely way out of the current crisis would be to encourage China to use the leverage of its food and oil shipments to the North Koreans to get them to back off. But the reality is that Mr. Kim now has nuclear weapons. And if it wants to continue to prevent their use, then America will eventually have to negotiate and ultimately normalize relations with the world’s last surviving Stalinist state.

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