A Nuclear Dilemma

Former President Carter and others eager to heal the U.S. rift with North Korea and pull the country back from the nuclear brink are urging President Bush to return to the Agreed Framework, the 1994 bargain President Clinton struck with North Korea. They want to use it as the starting point to cut Pyongyang yet another deal. Instead, the U.S. should treat North Korea as a violator of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, declare it ineligible to receive the technology promised in the agreement and wait the current North Korean regime out.

The 1994 deal called for Pyongyang to freeze its known plutonium-producing facilities, remain a party to the nonproliferation treaty and, in time, allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. In exchange, Washington promised North Korea two large light-water reactors for power generation and to supply Pyongyang with interim fuel oil.

Why not use this deal as the starting point for another? Two reasons.

First, Pyongyang has already violated the deal's basic nuclear-weapons restrictions. North Korea has made it clear that it regards the nuclear-weapons option as vital for its defense, and that it will not allow the IAEA to conduct full inspections. Any new deal that again softens North Korea's obligation to permit comprehensive inspections will not only fail to check Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, it will cripple U.S. efforts to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons globally.

Second, the agreement's big carrots for getting North Korea to behave -- the light-water reactors -- are more amenable to producing plutonium for bombs than advertised and more impractical and unsafe for generating power than originally believed. It's absurd to keep building the power reactors in the vain hope that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear weapons in a verified way.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty violation that led to the Agreed Framework came in 1992, when the IAEA discovered that the North Korea had been illicitly separating plutonium for bombs. North Korea tossed out the IAEA inspectors who tried to investigate, and then threatened to leave the treaty if pressed. The U.S. began negotiations with Pyongyang, which played its hand brilliantly. To cap the North's plutonium production, the Clinton administration promised the $5-billion power station and the interim fuel oil. North Korea was not required to submit, as any other state would have been, to immediate IAEA inspections.

Still, the deal required North Korea in time to come in line: Pyongyang was supposed to allow comprehensive IAEA inspections to be completed by the time the promised reactor project was half-built. North Korea was also obligated to implement the 1992 North-South denuclearization declaration, which forbade possession or production of nuclear explosives, including facilities for enriching uranium for bombs, and remain a party to the nonproliferation treaty.

The IAEA inspections, though, never started when they were supposed to -- by May 2002, according to the reactor construction schedule. With North Korea stiffing the IAEA and attacking the agency as a "tool" of a hostile U.S. policy, it became evident that Pyongyang was never going to permit IAEA inspectors to discover that the illicit plutonium was now in bombs.

In fact, what triggered the deal's breakdown was North Korea's realization that the Bush administration was going to enforce the Agreed Framework's inspection provisions. Pyongyang had gotten the idea from dealing with the Clinton administration that the United States would treat "full compliance" as a political determination, rather than as a technical one based on intensive inspections. Once it sunk in that real inspections were in the offing, the North knew the light-water reactor deal was headed up a blind alley. Under the deal, the North had to come into "full compliance" before it got the key nuclear components needed to complete the reactors. This Pyongyang would not do.

Given this and Pyongyang's vituperative spurning of IAEA inspections, it is bizarre that the U.S.-led consortium is still building these plants. The project never made sense in regard to supplying energy to the North. The two 1,000-megawatt light-water reactors are much too big to operate reliably on the small, flimsy North Korean electric grid. For this reason, they also cannot be operated safely. To avoid nuclear accidents, there must be reliable outside power sources for cooling when the reactor is not operating. Upgrading the grid to fix this would cost at least an additional $1 billion.

Another overlooked point is that the reactors were not, as the State Department claimed, "proliferation resistant." Light-water reactors make less plutonium than other reactors of the same size. But they are so much larger than the reactors the North Koreans were operating or building -- nearly 10 times larger -- that they could make twice as much plutonium as the North Korean ones they would have replaced. The initial output of one unit, after about a year of operation, would be enough weapons-grade plutonium for about 50 bombs. The North Koreans would not have much trouble extracting it.

These facts should have invalidated the deal. The clincher for the Bush administration, though, was the revelation that Pyongyang had secretly gotten uranium-enrichment technology based on centrifuges, and possibly the centrifuges themselves, from Pakistan. This violated the 1992 North-South declaration, and thus the Agreed Framework, which incorporated it. Only after the North acknowledged the secret uranium-enrichment program did the United States announce a stop to fuel oil shipments. The North then withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, saying it would "never regret its withdrawal from the treaty."

If the U.S. now tries to get Pyongyang to rejoin the nonproliferation treaty by relaxing the conditions for IAEA inspections that the regime finds so offensive, we will have gutted the treaty. Its application elsewhere gets left out of the equation in so many of the proposals for dealing with North Korea. To think in terms of sweetening the pot will only set us up for more rounds of violations and blackmail.

Our choices are limited, to be sure. We must avoid being naive about Pyongyang while not turning the other cheek. We should support the IAEA in taking the nonproliferation treaty violations to the U.N. Security Council and wait the North Koreans out. They are not crazy -- they do things very carefully -- and it helps to remember that their leaders' choices are even more limited if they want to keep riding around in their Mercedes.

In the meantime, we have to avoid doing anything foolish -- like trying to resurrect the Agreed Framework, reactor deal and all -- out of an excessive eagerness to "solve" the problem. Above all, we must not legitimize Pyongyang's nuclear status, even indirectly, unless we want to assure the world's would-be bomb makers that once they cross the line, they can have the world at their feet.

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