Entering the Reality Zone on North Korea

Non-proliferation expert Graham Allison agrees with John Bolton that the six-party agreement with North Korea “contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy”—a failed policy that is. The administration appears to be entering a “realit

Graham Allison agrees with John R. Bolton that the six-party agreement North Korea reached today "contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy"-a failed policy that is. In an interview with National Interest editor, Ximena Ortiz, Allison said the administration appears, therefore, to be entering a "reality zone," albeit four years, several bombs' worth of plutonium and a nuclear test later. Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004), is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

NIo: What does the agreement represent, both in terms of the non-proliferation regime and the overall foreign policy posturing of both Washington and Pyongyang? In terms of non-proliferation, how significant is the step North Korea has agreed to take and on foreign policy, does the agreement demonstrate on the Bush Administration's part a willingness to depart from you and Dimitri K. Simes have described as absolutist and short-sighted stance in your essay "Churchill, Not Quite", published in the September/October issue of The National Interest? And on Pyongyang's part, does it demonstrate a willingness to depart from its defiance of the past?

GA: This is a significant step for the Bush Administration into the reality zone, a strong departure from its previous failed approach and a good first step. So that's the good news. The bad news is that this is four years, eight bombs' worth of plutonium and one nuclear test after the Bush Administration departed from this point that it has inherited essentially from the Clinton Administration.

For North Korea, this represents a small step, I would say, not a big step, in that it essentially reiterates the position that it had agreed to and which it had complied with in the ‘94 agreement reached by the Clinton Administration that froze the Yongybon reactor. But it does so for a country that has now conducted a nuclear test. It has ten bombs worth of plutonium and it may or may not have a second alternative: a highly enriched uranium route for producing materials for nuclear bombs. In non-proliferation terms, this is positive, in that it is a step beyond the joint statement of September 2005 in which North Korea committed itself to eliminating all nuclear activity in North Korea. But North Korean words and commitments are of limited value and so most of what's to be delivered here in terms of non-proliferation remain to be negotiated and if history is any guide, it's gonna be a long path from where we now stand to the actual elimination of all North Korean nuclear-weapons material and nuclear weapons.

NIo: Under the agreement, North Korea will eventually be required to list all aspects of its nuclear program, an exercise that could test the Bush Administration's assertions that North Korea had been developing a uranium nuclear device, an assertion which prompted the Bush Administration to back away from the Agreed Framework on November 2002. This agreement, should it actually produce this list by North Korea, could test that Bush Administration assertion on a North Korean uranium bomb program. Is it likely, in your view, that the administration will be validated or that it could suffer another embarrassing illustration of miscalculating on major non-proliferation and intelligence matter?

GA: Information about North Korea's uranium-enrichment program that could also produce materials for bombs is uncertain because the facility, if it exists, has not been discovered. The basis for believing that there is such a facility comes from what is know about what A.Q. Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear bomb-maker, sold to the North Koreans. On the basis of that information, it's a reasonable inference that North Korea has been working on an enriched uranium facility, but where the facility is and the current status of the facility remains uncertain. In 2002, the Senate got from the CIA an assessment that by the middle of 2005, such a facility might be up and running. So it's conceivable that there's such a facility running today, but unknown.

In the current agreement, as described, North Korea is committed to providing a list of all of its nuclear facilities and materials, but whether and when it will do so remains uncertain. And if it were to provide an inadequate account of this enriched uranium facility, that's one of the hundred ways in which between where we now stand and the goal line-which the Bush Administration announced of complete verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, CVID-could again go off the rail.

NIo: Do you believe that the agreement could give global non-proliferation efforts, which lately have been notably unfruitful, some positive momentum and how do you see it resonating in Iran?

GA: What we have here is a positive step-in stopping a reactor that's producing two bombs worth of plutonium a year and has been doing so since the ‘94 agreement broke down because of the Bush Administration's approach to North Korea back in 2002. So, at least we're stopping more bleeding from this reactor. And I think in that sense, this is a positive step for the non-proliferation regime. But it's a freeze at this point for a state that has ten bombs worth of plutonium and has conducted a nuclear-weapons test.

So it's moving in the right direction, but it's moving in that direction now having bomb material and having tested a bomb. I think the impact on Iran therefore will be negligible.

NIo: Is there anything you would like to add?