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Bush Administration Demands Higher Standard for North Korea than for Itself
The Demilitarized Zone boundary.

Bush Administration Demands Higher Standard for North Korea than for Itself

Mark Caprio tells UCLA audience that both parties failed to live up to the 1994 agreement between North Korea and the United States.

By Mark Caprio

[Following is an edited transcript of a talk given at UCLA on February 14 by Professor Mark Caprio of Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Korean Institute, Harvard University. The talk was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies. The transcript is by Leslie Evans. The subheadings have been added.]

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In 2003 we face the same situation we faced in 1994 with North Korea deciding to challenge United States threats to its sovereignty. A recent edition of the Boston Globe carried a photo of armed soldiers guarding a convoy of Hyundai buses, under the heading "North Korean Crisis Deepens." While the text of the article dwelt on the latest North Korean threats to restart its frozen nuclear facilities, the inappropriate photo carried the opposite message. It was of the opening of a road across the demilitarized zone, opening one of the world's most heavily militarized borders after some 50 years of closure.

The historic opening of the DMZ was one of the most difficult steps the DPRK assented to in the Agreed Framework, the 1994 accord signed between the United States and the DPRK.

What Is/Was the Agreed Framework?

On Oct 21st 1994 the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - North Korea) signed an agreement known as the Geneva Accords of the Korean Peninsula. If fully implemented it would have made a nuclear free peninsula and a normalization of relations between the two Korean states as well as with the U.S.

This landmark agreement incorporated other recent statements that had been exchanged between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK - South Korea). It incorporated the efforts of over two years of negotiations.

The AF is often described as an antinuclear agreement. It is often reported as having been initiated by the North Korean construction of nuclear reactors, their transferring fuel rods from these reactors, and their declaration of withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These acts were not, however, in violation of any prior international commitment.

Indeed, the United States would have been in violation if it had conducted an air raid on the Yongbyon reactor or imposed sanctions, two actions it seriously considered, during the three months of required notification of intentioned withdrawal from the NPT. The Nonproliferation Treaty specifically protects the right of all states to "develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

The news media generally treat the agreement as a deal to freeze graphite rods in the Yongbyon reactor and to safely protect the canned fuel rods. The Agreed Framework also required the DPRK to permit monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In return the United States agreed to supply the DPRK with heavy heating oil and to lead a consortium that would finance, build, and deliver two light-water reactors (LWRs) to the North Koreans, one by 2003 and the other by 2004.

What was important to the North Koreans was Article II, which promised an establishment of full normalization of relations, including upgrading relations to the full ambassadorial level. Article III, section I, provided reassurance to the Koreans that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against North Korea. The North Koreans in exchange also promised to improve their relations with the ROK.

The terms of the agreement made its implementation contingent on the completion of specific steps. It did not require North Korea to dismantle the Yongbyon reactors until the light reactors had been delivered, although they were to be frozen and subject to IAEA inspection. The vague wording of the majority of its provisions implied the working out of details further down the road. The agreement reflected a high degree of mistrust. between nations, as suggested afterward by Robert L. Gallucci, the chief American negotiator.

The Agreed Framework implied an obligation by the United States to supply US$4 billion in the two light water nuclear reactors. Because an agreement falls short of an actual treaty and does not require congressional approval, this is not a binding legal commitment. Gallucci admitted in testifying before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs that he selected this format in place of a treaty because he "did not want to take on the obligation of providing a light water reactor."

Probably neither side was prepared to follow the necessary exploratory implementation through to a full treaty -- there were hawks on both sides.

Many of the people now in the Bush administration were quite critical of the agreement from the time it was first adopted. Many of the claims of those who had doubts about the enforceability of the agreement had merit, specifically its vague terms. It called, for example, for transfer of technology. President Clinton circumvented congressional objections by using $5 million of emergency funds.

Opposition critics lacked sympathy for the present DPRK situation. Both sides, North Korea and the United States, contributed to preventing a speedy implementation of the agreement. Selig Harrison in an article in the March/April 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs addressed this issue, and in his book Korean Endgame (Princeton University Press, 2002).

What the Agreement Failed to Do

It did not deal with American MIAs (8,000 U.S. soldiers missing since the end of the Korean War in 1953), or with the North Korean missile program. It did freeze the North Korean nuclear program. It did not provide for verification of whether North Korea already possessed any nuclear weapons. It agreed to a delay in the inspection of North Korean waste sites until after the LWRs were partially completed, but it was felt that these sites could not be moved and thus the delay posed no serious problem. The agreement did not specify a funding source for the building of the LWRs.

The good will generated by the agreement did lead to an improvement in North Korean-U.S. relations, including the release of U.S. helicopter pilot Bobby Hall in 1995. Negotiations over the last 9 years rarely pleased either side, but it should be recalled that the two sides remained technically in a wartime relationship stemming from the unfinished business of the Korean War.

What Happened to the Light Water Reactors?

The construction of the LWRs was not to be a gift but a long-term 20-year loan to be repaid by the North Koreans. They were regarded as safer because they produced only reactor grade plutonium rather than the more preferred weapons-grade plutonium produced at Yongbyon. A plant able to reprocess the LWR spent rods into usable weapon-grade material would be large and easily detectable. This assessment was disputed by House Policy Chairman Christopher Cox, who claimed that the projected light water reactors were also capable of producing weapons grade plutonium, in fact enough to build 100 bombs a year, while the existing Yongbyon reactor produces only enough to build about 12 bombs. But his conclusions were not upheld by the sources he cited, mainly the book Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies. The authors expressed their regrets that the representative had not used "all the information in the chapter" that he cited.

A few weeks after the Agreed Framework was concluded, the Republican sweep of the House and Senate fortified the opposition to the Clinton administration and its Korea policy. U.S. Republican Senator from Alaska Frank Murkowski (later governor), along with presidential hopeful Bob Dole, soon won Senate approval for "an amendment that would limit the ability of the Clinton administration to fund a North Korean agreement without the specific approval of Congress." A number of new conditions were added to any release of the funds needed to meet U.S. obligations, including North Korea's opening suspected nuclear waste sites to international inspection, its cooperation in MIA recovery efforts, its curtailing missile exports, and to engage the South in meaningful dialogue. Murkowski's primary concern was that the United States would be left with the total bill for the LWRs if the other member of KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the consortium entrusted to try to raise the funds to build the light water reactors) failed to provide the necessary funding. Similar attacks on the Agreed Framework emerged in the House of Representatives, chiefly sponsored by Congressman Benjamin Gilman (Republican, New York), notably the Gilman-Markey North Korea oversight bill passed on May 16, 2000.

A consequence of this opposition is that U.S. funds were never allocated for contruction of the light water reactors. The American government did allocate more than $100 million a year to North Korea, much of which consisted of the heavy oil that the Agreed Framework obliged the United States to provide. In fact, as Don Oberdorfer reports, the negotiators were "delighted" when the North Koreans asked for this oil, "a little used sludge-like commodity that is left over from the refining of petroleum" (The Two Koreas).

The heavy fuel was to be used "only for heating and electricity production at seven specific locations." It was considered a good choice by the Americans also because it is harder to convert heavy fuel oil to other kinds of fuel. The North Koreans chose it because they had a reactor on the northern border where the East Germans used to provide this kind of fuel source.

Compliance by the North Koreans

On the North Korean side compliance with the agreement, and its various congressional extensions, was uneven. A September 1999 General Accounting Office report said that to the best of the State Department's information there was "no clear evidence of any significant diversion to unauthorized purposes of the 500,000 metric cubic tons of heavy fuel oil delivered annually to North Korea."

There was suspicion of possible diversion of the substantial food contributions that the North Korean people received from the international community, although this is an area not directly related to the Agreed Framework that has come to be tied to discussions on its implementation.

Another problem was criticism of the degree of North Korea's commitment to the Agreed Framework process, particularly in improving relations with the South. KEDO had planned to raise funds to construct two light water reactors in South Korea as well as in the North. This resulted in an early DPRK threat to scrap the deal, one that eventually caused delay in the finalization of a supply contract.

The most important event that prevented the North Koreans from extending an olive branch across the DMZ was the death of Kim Il Sung. This was followed by a three-year traditional mourning period, which undermined the agreement. The ROK also contributed to the collapse of the agreement, speculating on an early collapse of the North Korean regime.

The August 1998 missile launch over Japanese air space also contributed to freezing the agreement's terms. But despite military clashes at sea the U.S. continually acknowledged that North Korea was abiding by the agreement. As late as February 2002 CIA director George Tenet testified that North Korea was abiding by the agreement, a day before George Bush declared them in violation

Compliance by the United States

The North Koreans have continually accused the United States of failing to carry out its part of the agreement, particularly the construction of the LWRs. The United States was also frequently late in the delivery of the heavy fuel it had pledged to supply.

To the North Korean government the most critical area of U.S. failure was the lack of assurances by the U.S. that it would not use nuclear weapons in a dispute with the Korean state, and its continued unwillingness to grant diplomatic recognition. The U.S. has said it is sufficient to say publicly that it has no plans for an attack on North Korea, but the DPRK felt that a formal treaty was needed to make such an assurance significant.

Under U.S. policy, the United States says it will refrain from hitting a nonnuclear state with nuclear weapons -- unless it is allied with a nuclear state. This puts North Korea at risk because of its alliance with China, which is a nuclear state.

South Africa under the de Klerk government in the early 1990s was only willing to cancel its nuclear program when its clash with Angola was settled by the construction of a buffer state in Namibia. This precedent should be considered in judging North Korea's behavior.

The End of the Agreed Framework?

The Bush administration has distanced U.S. policy from the Agreed Framework. While the Clinton administration failed to make significant progress in settling the nuclear issue, it did keep discussions open. The DPRK responded positively by maintaining the freeze on its Yongbyon nuclear facility and restraining its missile program. The Bush administration in contrast included North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil and issued a number of statements suggesting North Korea was a target for preemptive nuclear attack. This severely altered the amicable climate fostered between the United States and North Korea, particulary that which followed Kim Dae Jung's visit to the North Korean capital. It has led the North Korean media to characterize this behavior as a preparation for an attack on their country. North Korea and the United States announced their intention to withdraw from the Agreed Framework in late October 2002.

The North Koreans say that the U.S. abandoned the agreement by its announcement that it would not continue to send heavy fuel oil. The DPRK has asked for negotiations, while Bush has said he will negotiate only after the North Korean nuclear program is dismantled.

The reason the United States gave for withdrawing from the agreement was an admission by North Korean Ambassador Kang Sok Ju during talks in October 2002 that his government was engaged in a uranium enrichment program, an activity that violated the terms of the agreement. The North Koreans, on the other hand, claimed that the United States ended the agrement with its decision to suspend oil shipments, thus reneging on the only one of the four conditions of the agrement that it had continued to uphold.

The North Korean decision to engage in a uranium enrichment program is a clear violation of the 1994 agreement and of a previous agreement with the ROK. But the agreement has survived more critical challenges in the past. Reprocessing uranium is not a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty or IAEA requirements if it is properly monitored. It is a violation of a section of the Agreed Framework. Also important is when the North Koreans began this project. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly has said they have been engaged in this for several years. A 1999 report noted that the North Koreans were engaging in this program but did not see it as a violation. It was in 1997 that the United States began to slow down the deliveries of fuel oil.

It can be argued that North Korea began its fuel enrichment program because the LWRs require this fuel and by their Juche self-reliance ideology they would be dependent on a foreign supplier. The Yangbyon reactors uses ordinary uranium, which they have, while the LWRs need enriched uranium which would place the North Korean state in a dependent relation for its fuel needs.

The United States always says the ball is in the North Korean court. I believe it is the other way around.

From the Question Period

Question: Has the West built the LWRs?

Mark Caprio: They may have cleared the ground but no buildings have been constructed. No equipment has been delivered. If the United States had gone to North Korea and tried to discuss the delays, North Korea would probably not have had a problem with that, but the U.S. was both very late in the promised construction and refrained from a serious discussion of the issues with the North Korean government. The North Koreans did carry out their side of the agreement for the better part of 9 years.

Question: What is the basis of taking the North Korean nuclear issue to the UN Security Council?

Mark Caprio: There is a clause in the Nonproliferation Treaty that they can withdraw if they give assurance that there will be inspections that their nuclear operations are for peaceful purposes. I think this is a card the North Koreans want to play.

Question: Hasn't the U.S. has raised the bar on what can be inspected, demanding more access than anywhere else before?

Mark Caprio: Yes, they are applying the Iraq standard. The Clinton administration went into the agreement with good intentions. It stopped the immediate threat and tied the behavior of both sides. Right after that the Republicans gained control of the House and Senate. This is not a purely Republican problem as many Democrats have voted for extremely strict measures against North Korea. Clinton tried to act too late, at the eleventh hour. As far as the Bush administration is concerned, Rumsfield and others in the administration have tried for years to debunk U.S.-North Korean relations. The hostility began long before 9/11.

Question: Why does North Korea want to go nuclear?

Mark Caprio: The technology elevates a nation's status. The North Koreans have never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, as opposed to nuclear power plants. It is also a last ditch technology in the event that your country is attacked.

Question: How have certain dynamics changed since 1994? In 1994 the U.S. wanted the agreement and South Korea did not; today the opposite is the case.

Mark Caprio: Two words: the Sunshine Policy. Kim Dae Jung devoted his life to promoting reconciliation between the two Koreas. This is a big difference. The Bush 2 administration is a clone of Bush 1. In 1994 the ramification of going to war with North Korea was seen as a disaster by the Clinton administration. Bush's canceling of these negotiations set the ball back 10 years.

Ending the embargo and normalizing relations with the United States would open all kinds of possibilities for North Korea: relations with the IMF, the beginning of investment by U.S. companies. These would promote normalizing relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. Clinton had prepared the groundwork for a settlement with North Korea. He had said as he was leaving office that North Korea would be Bush's first big success, but Bush blew it.

The story in the papers about how far Korean missiles can reach was known since 1999. The White House reaction to this is, what's new. The U.S. says, give up your missiles and nuclear program; the North Koreans say, give us a nonaggression treaty. The North Koreans say they will disarm if they get a nonaggression treaty.

Question: What about the growing anti-Americanism in South Korea?

Mark Caprio: Two and a half miles away from North Korean the South is opening roads while thousands of miles away they are worried about missiles. These are very different attitudes. While South Korea is opening roads to the DMZ, they don't seem to be worried about North Korean troops marching over them into the South.

Question: What would it take to get an agreement?

Mark Caprio: The United States would have to change its first strike policy for all countries allied with nuclear powers. The Clinton administration was working through many of these complications, but not the U.S. government today.

Center for Korean Studies