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Twisting Road to Nuclear-Free Korean Peninsula
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By Gong Shaopeng

In the latest round of six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue, the parties involved have expressed optimism on the outcome. The thinking is that the main players the United States and North Korea could return to the Agreed Framework signed in 1994.

With the current talks in Beijing, which began on February 8, it's time to recap the long and twisting road that's already been traveled.

After the emergence of the so-called Korean nuclear crisis in 1993, the US and North Korea reached an agreement known as the US-North Korea Framework on Nuclear Issues on October 21, 1994.

At that time, North Korea insisted its nuclear program was aimed at ending its power shortage. Therefore the Agreed Framework demands that North Korea freeze its graphite reactor and all related facilities in exchange for two light-water reactors with a combined annual capacity of 2,000 megawatts per hour to be built by 2003 by an international consortium led by the US.

Before the first of the two reactors goes online, the US would supply 500,000 tons of heavy oil annually to North Korea for heating and power generation. On its part, North Korea would completely dismantle its graphite-moderated reactor related facilities. The two sides would also move toward full normalization of political and economic relations, opening liaison offices in each other's capitals, eventually upgrading bilateral ties to the level of ambassador.

In 1995, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), formed and led by the US, signed an agreement with North Korea government. Construction of the two light-water reactors followed.

Despite numerous twists and turns in the process of implementing the agreement, ties between North Korea and South Korea and between North Korea and the US made considerable progress.

In June 2000, then South Korean President Kim Dae-chong visited Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, for talks with his counterpart, Kim Jong-il. That October, Marshal Jo Myong-rok, vice-chairman of North Korea's defense committee, visited Washington and met with US President Bill Clinton. Later that month, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang and conferred with Kim Jong-il.

If the Democrats had won the presidential election later that year, Clinton's successor might have been the first US president to set foot on North Korea soil.

However, when the Republican administration took power in January 2001, it soon labeled North Korea a "rogue state" and one of the three countries it termed the "axis of evil".
Bilateral relations between North Korea and the US took a nosedive. A US government spokesman claimed that North Korea admitted to US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly during his visit to Pyongyang that it had been working on another nuclear project after suspending the graphite-moderated reactor program.

The US then announced sanctions against North Korea for violating the 1994 Agreed Framework. The sanctions included suspension of the heavy oil supply. North Korea came back with the statement that its nuclear program was in response to the military threat posed by the Bush administration. It also announced on December 22, 2002 it would unfreeze its nuclear program and pull out of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. These events triggered the second Korean nuclear crisis.

Following China's persuasive efforts, the first round of the six-party talks to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue was convened in Beijing in August 2003. The talks were attended by China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the US.

The ultimate goal of the talks is "abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for national security", meaning North Korea would abandon its nuclear activities while the US would promise it would not threaten North Korea's national security. Eventually, the parties signed a joint statement at the end of the Fourth Round of the six-party talks held in Beijing in September 2005.

North Korea committed to abandoning all future development of nuclear weapons as well as the existing nuclear program. It also agreed to rejoin the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons at an early date. The US affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack North Korea.

The joint statement also included the light-water nuclear reactors. North Korea stated it has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The other parties expressed their respect for this position and agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the provision of light-water reactors to North Korea.

China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US stated their willingness to provide energy assistance to North Korea. South Korea also reaffirmed its July 12, 2005 proposal to provide 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity to North Korea. Though they were not the focus of the six-party talks, the light-water reactors played an important role in addressing the Korean nuclear issue.

Regrettably, the implementation of the joint statement was cut short by US financial sanctions on a Macao-based bank accused of laundering and counterfeiting money for North Korea. North Korea conducted several missile tests on July 6, 2006 and an underground nuclear explosion on October 9. The situation on the Korean Peninsula immediately turned tense once again.

Hopes for the resumption of the six-party talks were rekindled after a meeting in Berlin between US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan in January.

According to news reports, North Korea agreed, as the first step in "abandoning its nuclear program", to freeze its nuclear facilities in Yongbyong in exchange for resumed heavy oil supplies from the US. In other words, North Korea and to a certain extent the US agreed to use the 1994 Agreed Framework as the first step in implementing a joint statement.

It should be acknowledged that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved in a single leap. It is pragmatic to address the issue step by step, beginning with the 1994 Agreed Framework and "freezing certain nuclear facilities in exchange for oil supply". This first step of real significance is not easily accomplished.

The first stumbling block is who should supply the heavy oil North Korea demanded.

According to the 1994 Agreed Framework, it is the job of the KEDO. However, the US-led group was disbanded without ceremony in December 2005 and has not seen a multinational replacement.

Many people believe South Korea should take the lead in supplying energy and electricity to North Korea, but the Roh Moo-hyun administration is currently in trouble over the supply of heavy oil to North Korea. The opposition parties have been accusing Roh's government of being too generous in its efforts to improve relations with the north.

More recently, Roh's administration lost majority backing in Parliament after dozens of legislators quit the ruling party. It will now be very difficult for South Korea to supply heavy oil to North Korea.

Another problem is the uncertain fate of the two light-water reactors to replace North Korea's own contraption as required by the 1994 Agreed Framework. They are expected to end North Korea's power shortage since the agreement on "freezing nuclear facilities in exchange for oil" is only a temporary measure.

It is quite possible that some countries involved in "freezing nuclear facilities in exchange for oil" deal may have second thoughts on providing North Korea with light-water reactors. They may demand the formulation of some follow-up solutions. As the KEDO no longer exists, even formulating a preliminary proposal could be extremely difficult.

Finally, since "abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for national security" is the focus of the six-party talks, returning to the 1994 Agreed Framework can only be seen as a temporary step. The US is highly unlikely to see "freezing certain nuclear facilities in exchange for oil" as the first step toward "abandoning the nuclear program in exchange for national security" without concrete follow-up measures.

In short, the current six-party talks appear bound for a very bumpy ride, though there is more than one reason to be optimistic. It would be a cause to celebrate if this round of talks succeeds in returning North Korea and the US to the 1994 Agreed Framework as the first step toward "abandoning nuclear programs in exchange for national security".
If the six parties only manage to form a few working groups on detailed plans, there is no reason for pessimism. Movement is being made toward the ultimate goal of the six-party talks "abandoning nuclear programs in exchange for national security". Just remember the ancient Chinese saying: Slow progress is better than none.

Gong Shaopeng is professor of international relations at the Beijing-based Foreign Affairs University's Institute of International Relations.

(China Daily February 13, 2007)

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