Hope over Experience: Denuclearizing the North

The six-party talks in Beijing have suffered a setback over North Korea’s frozen bank accounts in Macau. In the forthcoming issue of The National Interest, a former–Bush Administration heavyweight assesses the situation.

Editor's note: The following is taken from the article "Hope over Experience: Denuclearizing the North", which will appear in the forthcoming issue of The National Interest.

In Section II(1) of the agreement reached with North Korea on February 13, 2007, North Korea pledges to shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor and verify this step "as agreed between IAEA and the DPRK." So, one question is whether the shutting down and sealing of Yongbyon will be performed during the first sixty days, what the joint statement calls the "initial phase", or whether it will depend on when North Korea and the IAEA reach agreement, which could be very much longer.

The same question over timing arises in the next paragraph, where North Korea says it will "discuss" a list of all its nuclear programs within this initial phase. Again, this discussion may go on for a very long time. Language elsewhere in the joint statement stipulates that these and other actions "will be implemented within the next 60 days", so I think we should be prepared for Pyongyang to argue that it is meeting its obligations if it enters into discussions rather than having these discussions result in an agreement at the end of sixty days.

As many people have noted, the joint statement contains no explicit mention of uranium enrichment. To be sure, there are references to "all nuclear programs" and "nuclear facilities", which presumably means that a complete listing would capture any uranium-enrichment capability. But the North Koreans have repeatedly denied that they have a uranium-enrichment program or facilities. I would feel more comfortable if there was explicit reference to "all nuclear technologies" or "all nuclear-related technologies" to make extra certain that the uranium-enrichment technology we know North Korea has imported is covered by the "denuclearization" and "disablement" language.

It's possible the negotiating record, which has not been made public, clarifies these points, but U.S. officials need to make clear our expectations that North Korea will not be allowed to keep any nuclear facilities, technologies or materials under any circumstances.

The joint statement also establishes working groups to hammer out the details of implementing the deal. The idea of working groups is excellent and one I advocated when I was in the administration. But I had in mind no more than one or two, because five working groups will present additional challenges for both North Korea and the United States.

We should expect North Korea to use the working groups to revisit settled issues, resist compromises and push for additional concessions; discussions on denuclearization will be especially tough going. As we all know, the devil is in the details. Let me cite just one example: How do we handle North Korea's nuclear devices? The IAEA is not going to be allowed to verify or take possession of any nuclear devices. And we don't want any South Korean or Japanese officials to have this responsibility or, indeed, officials from any non-nuclear weapons state. So we will have to work out how to do this with the Chinese, Russians and, of course, the North Koreans. Assuming we even get that far, that promises to be a very interesting conversation.

We should also expect the working groups to encounter procedural difficulties. Based on my experience negotiating with the North Koreans, it is clear they do not have a very deep diplomatic bench. In other words, they have a limited number of competent and trusted officials, and most of them are "stove-piped" into their respective ministries. Consequently, there is a significant risk that five active working groups would overwhelm their system. So what I envision is that North Korea will not agree to these groups meeting simultaneously, as some U.S. officials might expect, but rather seriatim.

The challenge for the Bush Administration is rather different. Up until this point, Ambassador Christopher Hill has been able to operate virtually independent of the bureaucracy, both in Berlin and Beijing. The issues raised in the working groups will have to be farmed out to an interagency process, allowing internal critics of this more robust engagement an opportunity to raise objections and try to derail subsequent negotiations. Managing the internal squabbling and forging coherent administration positions will test Ambassador Hill's formidable bureaucratic skills.

In addition, at some point in each of these working groups an impasse will be reached. At that time, the United States should expect that one or more of the other parties will pressure the United States to make additional concessions to appease North Korea. We saw this dynamic in the 1993-1994 negotiations leading to the Agreed Framework. The six-party format now institutionalizes the opportunity for this lobbying on Pyongyang's behalf. This is not an insuperable problem-one can always hold firm-but it is one that U.S. negotiators need to anticipate and counter.

Mitchell B. Reiss is Vice Provost for International Affairs at the College of William & Mary. From 2003-2005, he served as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.