Less than 24 hours after diplomats announced a breakthrough pact to eliminate nuclear arms in North Korea, the isolated communist state threw cold water on the deal today, saying it would not abandon its weapons program until the United States gave it a light-water nuclear reactor.
North Korea’s demand could be a deal breaker. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator at the six-nation nuclear talks, made it clear at the opening of negotiations in Beijing last week that the idea of providing North Korea with a reactor before disarmament would be a “nonstarter.”
After four rounds of discussions spanning two years, the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and China said Monday that they had agreed on a vaguely worded plan under which North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear weapons in return for energy assistance, eventual U.S. and Japanese diplomatic recognition and a pledge by Washington that it would not attack the country.
The agreement also said the U.S. and other nations would discuss giving North Korea a light-water reactor for generating electricity, though it skirted the question of when. It said only that the possibility would be considered “at an appropriate time.”
But the North Koreans made it clear today that they were in no mood to defer their reward.
In a blunt statement, North Korea’s official KCNA news service warned that “the U.S. should not even dream of the issue of [North Korea’s] dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing” a light-water reactor, which it called “a physical guarantee for confidence-building.”
Should the United States insist on the dismantling of North Korea’s atomic weapons before the provision of a light-water reactor, the statement said, “there will be no change in the nuclear issue.”
Even though difficulties were expected to arise in the coming months as diplomats sought to iron out the details of Monday’s pact, the speed with which the Pyongyang regime punctured the celebratory mood was surprising.
Late Monday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack made a terse statement about the North Korean demand, telling reporters in New York, “This is not the agreement that they signed, and we’ll give them some time to reflect.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura called North Korea’s demand “unacceptable.”
In Washington, experts said that although North Korea’s statement did not completely annul what was achieved in Beijing, it would not help the next round of talks, scheduled for November.
“I don’t think it blows up the deal. What it does is underline how difficult the process remains,” said Robert J. Einhorn, who was a top player in North Korea negotiations with the Clinton administration.
Einhorn pointed out that the document signed in Beijing contained only the vaguest statement of shared principles. In addition to the nebulous language about the reactor, the text did not detail how North Korea’s disarmament would be verified. Nor did it state how much energy assistance North Korea would get or when -- before it starts disarming, as it disarms or after it has fully disarmed. Also, the document made no mention of a deadline for North Korea to give up its weapons.
“This wasn’t a big, substantive reconciliation,” Einhorn said. “This was an agreement to set aside a disagreement and move ahead with the talks.”
But Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea expert at Japan’s Waseda University, faulted the U.S., saying it had not learned from past dealings with North Korea to nail down every detail.
“There is no mention what comes first in the statement,” he said.
He noted that in negotiations, North Korea often brings up new demands or additional items such as the light-water reactor when close to an agreement. “The other party wants to avoid a breakdown, so they can’t reject that,” he said. “The U.S. and Japan were weak. They shouldn’t have given in, even if the negotiations broke down.”
The United States has put enormous effort into the negotiations, as has China, which has been the host of the talks, and South Korea, which has agreed to supply the North with 2 million kilowatts of electricity in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear program.
China is regarded as one of North Korea’s closest allies, but Chinese analysts were unusually critical of North Korea today for apparently changing its mind so quickly.
“It is very stupid for North Korea to ask to change a just-signed deal,” said Jin Linbo, Asia-Pacific director with the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “It will now be criticized by all parties, not just the U.S.”
Monday’s statement of principles had been greeted with widespread, if cautious, enthusiasm, coming as it did after exhausting, stop-and-start negotiations interspersed with public exchanges of insults between the United States and North Korea.
“They have said -- in principle -- that they will abandon their weapons programs,” President Bush said. “And what we have said is: ‘Great. That’s a wonderful step forward.’ But now we’ve got to verify whether that happens.”
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, whose organization would play a key role in verifying North Korea’s denuclearization, also hailed the announcement as “very welcome news” but was concerned about the fine print.
“We’ll see how this proposal will be translated into specific details,” he said in Vienna, where the IAEA is headquartered.
Pyongyang’s mercurial behavior is likely to give ammunition to hard-liners in the Bush administration who believe that no deal is possible with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Il.
A previous agreement that would have had North Korea abandon its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid collapsed in 2002.
That deal, reached in 1994, stipulated that a U.S.-led coalition would build twin light-water reactors on North Korea’s east coast to supply electric power to the impoverished nation. The suspended $5-billion project is about one-third complete.
The Bush administration has expressed fear that the North could use a light-water reactor for weapons development and has been adamant that the U.S. will not allow construction of the east coast reactors to resume. Instead, it has urged North Korea to accept South Korea’s offer of electricity.
But to prevent the talks from collapsing Monday, the United States -- under pressure from China -- agreed in theory to respect North Korea’s right to a civilian nuclear program and to allow North Korea to raise, at a later date, its demand for a light-water reactor. “China really dug in,” a senior U.S. official close to the talks said.
In late-night conversations with Washington, the U.S. delegation argued successfully that there were enough safeguards to ensure that North Korea wouldn’t gain access to a reactor before it got out of the nuclear weapons business.
Diplomats who were in Beijing said their assumption was that North Korea could only have a light-water reactor after it had at least shut down its nuclear weapons program and complied with the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, from which it withdrew in 2002. But they noted that North Korea may have seen things differently.
“To be frank, there is a difference in recognition between North Korea and the other countries,” Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s chief delegate to the talks, said in Beijing on Monday. “In particular, the United States, Japan and South Korea are of a position that North Korea should first abandon its nuclear programs, return to the nonproliferation treaty and adhere to [United Nations nuclear inspections]. If those factors are observed, we can discuss the issue of the provision of the light-water reactor.”
South Korean officials in Seoul said they believed the light-water reactor project on North Korea’s east coast was dead and that any similar project in the future would not be built by the United States, but most likely by themselves or Russia.
Beyond the nuclear reactor issue, experts said the hardest part of implementing Monday’s pact would be getting North Korea to accept the intrusive presence of weapons inspectors to verify that its nuclear programs have been fully dismantled.
North Korea is known for zealously guarding its privacy, and many of its important weapons facilities are buried in tunnels in the country’s remote, mountainous interior. U.S. intelligence analysts have admitted that they have little idea of the locations of key installations.
Peter Hayes, head of the Nautilus Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank, said the first step would be for North Korea to make a declaration of all the elements of its nuclear program and their locations.
“This is key,” he said. “And we won’t tell them what we know until they tell us what they have, so we can tell if they’re lying.”
Pierre Goldschmidt, a former deputy director-general of the IAEA who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it would be very important for agency inspectors to have “extensive rights to go anywhere they want. I believe the agency would need extended authority to do a proper job.”
Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century in Washington, was not convinced that rigorous inspections would be possible.
“You’ll never find a perfect verification deal with North Korea. There’s not enough inspectors in the world to make that happen,” he said. “The question is whether you can [keep] them so busy keeping things hidden that they become operationally less effective. I have serious doubts that we’ll get that kind of inspection regime.”
Demick reported from Seoul, Magnier from Beijing and Efron from Washington. Times staff writers Bruce Wallace in Tokyo and Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna and Hisako Ueno of the Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
NORTH KOREAN STATEMENT
‘Consequences Will Be Very Serious’
Excerpts from a statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry provided by Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency:
We have approached the talks with magnanimity, patience and sincerity, proceeding from the principled, fair and above-board stand to achieve the general goal of the denuclearization of the peninsula at any cost. As a result, we have at last succeeded in meeting all these challenges, making it
possible to agree on the joint
statement, “verbal commitments.” ...
As already known, the issue over which the DPRK [North Korea] and the U.S. have had most serious differences in the “verbal commitments” to denuclearize the peninsula so far was the issue of the former’s right to nuclear activity for a peaceful purpose, to be specific, the issue of the U.S. provision of light-water reactors (LWR) to the former....
[W]e made it clear that the basis of finding a solution to the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S. is to wipe out the distrust historically created between the two countries, and a physical groundwork for building bilateral confidence is none other than the U.S. provision of LWRs to the DPRK....
The six parties agreed to take harmonious measures to implement phase by phase the points agreed on in the joint statement in accordance with the principle of “action for action” in the days ahead....
As already clarified more than once, we will feel no need to keep even a single nuclear weapon if the DPRK-U.S. relations are normalized, bilateral confidence is built and we are not exposed to the U.S. nuclear threat any longer.
What is most essential is, therefore, for the U.S. to provide LWRs to the DPRK as early as possible as evidence proving the former’s substantial recognition of the latter’s nuclear activity for a peaceful purpose.
The U.S. should not even dream of the issue of the DPRK’s dismantlement of its nuclear deterrent before providing LWRs, a physical guarantee for confidence-building. This is our just and consistent stand as solid as a deeply rooted rock.
We have so far shaped our policies toward the U.S. hard-liners and will do so in the future, too.
One should wait and see how the U.S. will move in actuality at the phase of “action for action” in the future, but should it again insist on “the DPRK’s dismantlement of nuclear weapons before the provision of LWRs,” there will be no change in the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S., and its consequences will be very serious and complicated.