Nuclear Talks will Test Six Nations in Beijing

James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

February 24, 2004

Tomorrow, senior officials from six nations will meet in Beijing to test whether there is any hope of a diplomatic solution to the gathering nuclear threat in North Korea. A breakthrough is not on the cards, but limited progress may well be. In this business, that would be very good news.

Ahead of the talks, the diplomats talked about setting up one or more semi-permanent working groups of experts. If the negotiators in Beijing could agree on that, it would be an important development. Procedural agreements often foreshadow the nature of substantive agreements yet to come.

Verification is an especially ticklish issue, but one that might yield to technical analysis in a working group. The issues concern the 50-year-old technology of the nuclear fuel cycle: the processing of basic elements that provide the energy for nuclear power plants—or for atomic bombs.

U.S. intelligence believes Pyongyang started a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment programme a few years ago. The Bush administration says it will not engage in a cat-and-mouse game about this with Pyongyang. Indeed, the model should not be Iraq, in any respect. The North Koreans ought to declare all their nuclear fuel cycle activities, including related research and development, both for plutonium and uranium.

The main task of the Beijing talks remains that of defining the goal and deciding how, step by step, to move towards it. The chances for success are less than 50 per cent, but substantially more than zero. The U.S. has insisted on an up-front commitment from North Korea to dismantle all its nuclear programmes “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly”. North Korea’s neighbours, without exception, also want a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. North Korea has offered to freeze its plutonium-producing activities at Yongbyon as a first step. But it wants a high price in return.

In Washington, opinion on the negotiations is divided along familiar lines. The regime-changers expect—and frankly hope—the talks will strengthen the case for tightening the noose around the neck of the North Korean regime. But last Friday, Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, likened any freeze to stopping a speeding train before putting it in reverse.

Mr. Powell’s negotiators will want to know whether a freeze would include all North Korean activities related to the nuclear fuel cycle and how firmly connected it would be to a commitment to dismantle those activities. Such an agreement is what most delegations will be seeking. And that would be a pretty good deal.

What assurance can there be that an incremental approach would not be just as illusory as previous agreements with North Korea? The answer may lie in a favourite tool of negotiators, a comprehensive road map. A road map should provide time limits for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programmes and should include a six-nation enforcement mechanism. The involvement of all North Korea’s neighbours is a new and important feature of these talks, for which the Bush administration can claim credit. The administration should take full advantage of it.

Will North Korea accept anything like this? North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, may be determined to acquire a nuclear arsenal at all costs. But there is also a chance he will see his country’s future, and his survival, in economic reform.

Another U.S. innovation is the Nunn-Lugar programme, which helped Russia dismantle its nuclear forces. The other participants in the six-party talks can provide economic help to North Korea if Mr. Kim agrees to dismantle all his nuclear weapons programmes. The special US contribution could be providing support for conversion of North Korean military activities to civil applications, especially toward improving the country’s pathetic healthcare system. The globalisation of the Nunn-Lugar programme for such purposes now has political support in the US.

An international co-operative threat-reduction programme, applied in North Korea, would open the door to settlement of the Korean crisis. But all this depends on whether North Korea is headed toward reform or intends to remain mired in repression. The alleviation of human suffering, whether it be hunger, unjust imprisonment or the pain of divided families, always has been a moral imperative. It is inseparable from relations between states. The issue will sit squarely on the conference table in Beijing, whether acknowledged or not.