Nuclear showdown in North Korea: who won?

By Subha Xavier

On Feb. 1, 1993, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a 1985 signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), refused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to two of its seven nuclear waste sites. Nearly two years later, after numerous talks, threats, and diplomatic negotiation littered with impasses, the United States and North Korea reached an agreement in October, 1994 allowing for inspection of the sites. However, no precise date for the inspection was set; only a five-year term for compliance was issued. Furthermore, the U.S. made several concessions in reassuring North Korea, giving in to an obvious case of nuclear blackmail and yet hoping to spark a relationship which would end 47 years of Communist reign and bring a country rich in resources into the free market.

Grounds For Suspicion

Suspicion about North Korea's recent nuclear-related activities began in 1984 when one of three nuclear reactors, capable of producing enough plutonium for seven atomic bombs a year, was constructed to go into operation in late 1992.

Nearby, in Yongbyon, the building of a suspected nuclear fuel reprocessing plant was also under way since 1988. CIA warnings in the U.S. began as early as 1984. However, there was no alarm until warnings in 1989 and 1992 brought North Korea's nuclear potential and capability into the public eye. Though the North had signed the NPT in 1985, the Pyongyang legislature had yet to ratify an agreement allowing IAEA inspectors into its nuclear installation in February 1992, even after signing the Nuclear Safeguards Accord.

When Kim Il Sung's government finally agreed to the inspections (May 1992), it was in return for the cancellation of Team-Spirit, a joint annual military exercise between South Korea and the U.S. However, upon analysis of the small quantity of plutonium which North Korea had acknowledged having produced, the IAEA concluded that more plutonium must have been produced than had been declared.

But North Korea insisted its nuclear activities were peaceful, designed for civilian use only. All the while it held the trump card that was to grant it the economic aid and international attention it craved, under the guise of cooperation.

When the IAEA team arrived for further inspection on Feb. 1, 1993, it was denied access to the very two sites most suspected by U.S. intelligence. This prompted a demand for "special inspection" by the IAEA, which was met by North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT on March 12, 1993. The IAEA issued a deadline for compliance, which the North described as "an infringement on the sovereignty of our Republic" and a "hostile act designed at strangling socialism."

Clinton's Warning

The deadline was pushed back several times as talks between the U.S. and North Korea continued with no agreement in sight. Finally on Dec. 8, 1993, President Clinton warned of the possibility of a "full-blown crisis," claiming "we will do what we need to do." Still, the credibility of a U.S. threat was highly questionable, given that United Nations sanctions were unlikely to be supported by either China or Japan, which are in close target range from North Korea. Moreover, sanctions would have been powerless against a nation that hardly trades with the rest of the world, because of Kim Il Sung's philosophy of sacrifice and self-reliance. In its most decisive move the North also issued a veiled threat of a nuclear attack on South Korea if the impending sanctions were imposed.

Though the U.S. initially refused any economic aid without North Korean compliance, it soon made concessions. In May, 1994, an IAEA team was sent to monitor the removal of spent fuel rods at the main reactor in Yongbyon, but before their arrival five percent of the spent fuel rods had been removed. It seemed North Korea was only moments away from obliterating any evidence of nuclear material produced for the construction of weapons.

By June 1994, the U.N. Security Council sought the implementation of economic sanctions as China agreed to abstain from the vote. However, it was expected that an economic embargo would be ineffective and might even provoke a war on the Korean peninsula. The mounting tensions were temporarily defused by a four-day visit to North Korea by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on June 15. This meeting gave Kim Il Sung the opportunity to reiterate his proposals, which included a suspension of the North's nuclear activities and an agreement to hold a presidential summit with South Korea in return for the suspension of the U.N. threat of sanctions and the resumption of high level talks with the U.S. However, though Carter was quick to agree to the proposal and claim the talks were "a miracle," the halting of the country's nuclear development, according to the accepted proposal, was to translate into a storage by North Korea of its 800 spent fuel rods. If these rods were to be reprocessed, analysts warned, enough material could be produced for four, even five, nuclear weapons. Despite this possibility, the U.S. agreed to the proposed plans. The likelihood of sanctions diminished still further with Russia's refusal, around the same time, to back a U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution, because there had been insufficient Russian consultation on the issue. The talks were hence scheduled for July 8, the very day on which news of Kim Il Sung's death reached the international community, bringing the crisis to a standstill. Negotiations were postponed as Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son, prepared to succeed his father.

In September 1994, the U.S. and North Korea held talks in Geneva and an agreement began to take shape. It was already clear however that it was the international community that would make the broader concessions as Kim Jong Il ardently pursued his father's strategy.

On Oct. 21, 1994, a document was signed which is to grant North Korea two light-water reactors (worth $4 billion), 500,000 tons of heavy oil (originally supplied by the Soviet Union), resumed membership in the NPT, and at least a five-year delay of special inspections--ample time to conceal any weapons built or in the making.

Diplomats Strike Gold

As a result, North Korea, with a shrinking economy, a declining Gross National Product, a very low supply of food, and an absence of international investment and allies, struck gold. Using its diplomatic weapon with great care, it avoided the pressure to open its nuclear sites for international inspection.

The U.S. on the other hand, failed to compel the North to allow international inspection and probably failed to prevent the construction of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the U.S. may still stand to gain by reassuring a country with a decrepit economy and impoverished population.

Additional nuclear building has been halted and North Korea's revived resources may profit from global economics. If Kim Jong Il's intentions are, on the contrary, to violate the agreement, as his father violated numerous accords, the United States will likely suffer an immense loss of credibility. More importantly, nuclear conflict will remain a possibility.

Subir Guin is studying at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1995, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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