Today's date:
Summer 1995

The North Korean Precedent

Joe Nye, one of America's top experts on nuclear non-proliferation, is currently assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He was formerly chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He spoke with NPQ recently about North Korea's bomb.

NPQ: Former United States Secretary of State James Baker said that "North Korea's dangerous game of nuclear cat-and-mouse appears to have paid off. The agreement between the Americans and the North Korean regime represents a tacit acknowledgment of North Korea's nuclear status. As such, it undermines both the international nonproliferation regime and peace in northeast Asia."

Republicans in the new US Congress question the deal as well. The Japanese also worry that while the US had previously assigned priority to eliminating whatever nuclear devices North Korea may have already built, it now appears to be taking a tactical future-oriented approach toward freezing the nuclear program at its present state. This alarms North Korea's non-nuclear neighbors who worry that North Korea may already have a bomb. What kind of precedent does the North Korean deal set?

JOE NYE: This agreement is a good precedent. It is the first case where we have gone well beyond the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requirements and gotten a state to agree to dismantle a nuclear weapons program, It not only requires inspections, but also dismantlement. This agreement also prevents the North Koreans from reprocessing their nuclear fuel, which is also beyond the NPT requirements. We faced a situation where the North Koreans had unloaded their reactor and had the equivalent of five weapons worth of plutonium sitting in the cooling pools. The agreement has frozen that. They can't reprocess it even though they are allowed to by the NPT.

The agreement prevents them from using that reactor to make any more plutonium and has frozen the construction of the larger reactors, which would have produced a great deal of plutonium. It requires them to dismantle the things that are frozen at the end of a decade-long process. That doesn't weaken the NPT, it strengthens it.

NPQ: Yet, the agreement leaves intact what weapons the North Koreans might already have?

NYE: First of all, nobody knows for certain what they have. The CIA believes they have reprocessed fuel from their five-megawatt reactor, which would produce something in the range of 8-12 kilograms of plutonium. This might be enough for one device or oneand-a-half devices. The Chinese have consistently said that they don't think the North Koreans have been able to take that plutonium and make it into a bomb. So nobody knows whether they have or haven't produced nuclear devices -nobody has seen them.

The agreement requires that before North Korea gets the nuclear components of a light-water reactor, they have to allow for the special inspections. Immediate special inspections of their waste sites would not make much difference in terms of what we know or do not know. It would not disclose whether that plutonium had been shaped into a nuclear device or not.

It is ironic that the reprocessing happened on Jim Baker's watch. So this is not a partisan issue. It would have been better to have stopped North Korea years ago, Faced with the situation in 1994, was it better for nonproliferation and for the protection of South Korea and Japan to have a deal which freezes and dismantles the program, or to have allowed North Korea to reprocess what they have and develop a larger arsenal? Compared with the alternatives, the agreement is much better.

One alternative was bombing the reprocessing facility. Another was United Nations sanctions. Either might have caused a large conventional war. It would have been nice if, back in the early 19gos, somebody had prevented the North Koreans from reprocessing in the first place.

NPQ: Given the degree of uncertainty that remains, does a buildup of US forces on the peninsula make any sense as a kind of complementary move?

NYE: While the nuclear agreement is an important step toward stability, it has not removed North Korean conventional forces - 1.1 million troops, two-thirds of which are lined up along the DMZ. Therefore it would be unwise for us to continue the planned reduction in the US force posture. In 1992, the Bush Administration issued a report called the East Asian Strategic Initiative that included a planned cut Of 7,000 troops. This was subsequently suspended.

We have now halted any planned force cuts. We will maintain approximately 100,000 troops in Japan and South Korea because we feel the situation is still serious although the nuclear agreement is an important first step.

NPQ: Not a buildup, but also not a build-down.

NYE: That is right.

NPQ: One message of this North Korea deal says that we can go further with these kinds of agreements to dismantle and freeze nuclear programs. It can send another message too: If you already have a bomb, Iran or Libya, you get to keep it. Just don't make any more. Which is the key message of the North Korean deal?

NYE: "Dismantle" is the key message. We have a prior case of dismantlement, which was South Africa. But North Korea is the first case where a government had the makings of a nuclear weapons program - graphite reactors and a reprocessing plant-yet has signed an agreement for its dismantlement. It is an important and powerful precedent that reinforces the NPT.

NPQ: This was a deal that was cut between the US and North Korea, but the financing of the light-water reactor involves the countries in the region. Does that presage a new way of coping with these things on a regional basis?

NYE: Remember that the agreement, while it was a US-North Korean deal, almost floundered over the issue of the North/South dialogue with in
Korea. We thought originally the deal might fail because we were not going to allow it to go forward without a strong statement that there must be a North/South dialogue. So the deal not only approaches the nuclear issue, it also approaches ways to try to build a more stable situation on the Korean peninsula through dialogue.

In addition to that, we are now in the process of negotiating KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) -a multilateral framework for implementing the agreement. We can also build upon this agreement to develop a regional security dialogue. Though a regional security dialogue is not an alternative to the US alliance with Japan or the US alliance with South Korea-both of which we are reaffirming-it is essentially an additional structure around which to help build confidence and transparency in the region to make the prospects of conflict less likely in the long run.

NPQ: Over the long-term, aren't we talking about a regional structure that will ultimately supplant the US alliance?

NYE: That is not clear. Look at Europe where we are keeping NATO but are surrounding NATO with Partners for Peace and with a strengthened Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. So by analogy in Asia, one can foresee maintenance of the US/Japan Security Treaty and the US/South Korean Treaty but surrounding it with a broader security dialogue. Part of it is the ASEAN Regional Forum and part of it might be to develop a Northeast Asian regional security dialogue. But these are steps which still have a way to go.

NPQ: What was North Korea's objective in all this-in building a bomb and then negotiating this kind of arrangement? What are they up to?

NYE: Well, I think the North Koreans are interested in their survival, and right now their economic situation is quite dire. I think they realized that if they continued down the path of trying to develop nuclear weapons, they would become increasingly isolated and that this would put pressure on an already weak regime. They faced a choice which was either to give up their nuclear program or to face sanctions and isolation, which would exacerbate their economic stress.

NPQ: Although, originally, they began to develop the bomb as a way to avoid that kind of isolation.

NYE: I think they may have had illusions back in the 1970s, when all these things started, about the strength of their economy under their planned system, which turned out to be false.

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