Is the Party for Six Over?
All the parties appeared satisfied. After five days of intense negotiation, including a marathon 16-hour final session, the six-party talks in Beijing finally produced an agreement on how to start dismantling North Korea's nuclear program. Within sixty days North Korea will shutdown and seal its Yongbyon nuclear facilities under the supervision of international inspectors. In return, the North will receive 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and humanitarian aid.
But this key question remains: will North Korea abide by the broader aspects of the agreement? North Korea has sidestepped such pacts before. And perhaps most revealingly, as the U.S. government was busy emphasizing the various steps needed to be taken by North Korea towards complete nuclear dismantlement, North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) briefly reported the "temporary suspension" of the operation of its nuclear facilities in return for economic and energy aid equivalent to one million tons of heavy oil. There is no doubt that North Korea will demand tougher conditions for further implementation of nuclear dismantlement.
After it shutters Yongbyon, North Korea has agreed to provide a complete list of its nuclear programs and disable all existing nuclear facilities. The reward for such compliance could reach up to an equivalent of one million tons of heavy fuel oil, with a package of energy, food and other aid from South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States. In addition, the United States will consider removing North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism and ending various economic and financial sanctions.
If upheld, the single most important aspect of the deal would be its success in preventing North Korea from ever becoming a mass producer of nuclear materials. Despite the October nuclear test, North Korea's nuclear program has not yet fully materialized. Its threat is more symbolic than real. North Korea's alleged plutonium stockpile of up to forty kilograms could easily be spent in the several rounds of testing necessary for refining nuclear weapons.
While North Korea is suspected of having a secret uranium program, without its major plutonium program, supplied by the Yongbyon facilities, it would be difficult for North Korea to become a mass producer. Thus, the world-and particularly the United States, given a worsening situation in Iraq-came across a big break in dealing with the North Korean nuclear roller coaster in a more peaceful manner.
Some skeptics have criticized the agreement for rewarding North Korea's bad behavior. Former U.S. representative to the United Nations, John Bolton, said the agreement would send the wrong signal to Iran, which may follow the North Korean model of nuclear brinkmanship. But it was not U.S. weakness that led to the agreement. Rather, U.S. stubbornness in previous rounds made the U.S. offer more attractive this time. North Korea became desperate after the UN leveled sanctions for its nuclear test and was especially hurt by U.S. financial sanctions on Kim Jong-il's secret account in Banco Delta Asia in Macau. The North Koreans took the money and went home after the six parties made them see the merit of unilateral nuclear dismantlement.
It is too early to tell whether the agreement for North Korea is part of a stalling strategy or whether it will ultimately prove part of an overall grand bargain-with the expected fits and starts. U.S. negotiator Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill has acknowledged that the deal represents just a first step in a long journey towards North Korea's ultimate dismantlement of the known and unknown aspects of its program. Still, many experts doubt that Kim Jong-il would give up the most tangible prospect for his regime's survival.
Despite the ever-uncertain prospect of the final outcome, all the parties in the talks seemed to come out as winners in this round of negotiations-at least temporarily. China can now brandish a diplomatic victory as the host of the talks, in the aftermath of a huge setback and embarrassment over North Korea's nuclear test four months ago. South Korea can boast about its facilitation of U.S.-North Korean discussions. And Seoul was prepared to pay for North Korea's initial step toward nuclear dismantlement with a shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy oil as seed money. Seoul is also preparing to resume substantial humanitarian aid to North Korea, which it sees as a small price for peace on the peninsula.
Russia proved to be more than just a bystander this time around, through its active diplomacy. Japan could have a bilateral discussion with North Korea on the abduction issue that the other parties regarded as irrelevant for nuclear talks. In addition to economic aid, North Korea got a reprieve from international pressure and UN sanctions over its October nuclear test. The agreement also opened the door for Pyongyang to normalize relations with Washington.
As for the United States, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that the shutdown and possible disablement of nuclear facilities represented a significant difference and a progress from a freeze under the 1994 Geneva agreement. And the deal was made in a multilateral context, so the burden of proof is on North Korea, not on the United States.
The parties must sustain the pressure on North Korea while engaging in active diplomacy. The United States and the world should keep reminding North Korea of the possibility of tougher sanctions in the case of further nuclear defiance. Indeed, the agreement was an outcome of an effective combination of a big carrot and a strong stick, and the U.S. willingness to show greater flexibility was welcomed by China, a key stakeholder in the six- party talks.