SEOUL - The United States is having to settle for a remarkable diplomatic
about-face by accepting a long-delayed nuclear declaration from North Korea
that is crafted to circumvent the contentious issues that precipitated the
nuclear "crisis" that has traumatized the Korean Peninsula since 2002.
While reluctantly acknowledging ill-defined concerns about a uranium program,
North Korea avoids details on just what it has been doing to begin to develop
the capability of exploding a nuclear warhead with uranium at its core.
North Korea was due to hand over the dossier to Chinese officials on Thursday
for study by the countries involved in the six-party
talks on North Korea's nuclear program - North and South Korea, China, the
United States, Japan and Russia.
The declaration contains no clues about the caves and redoubts, the
laboratories and production facilities where North Korean scientists are
believed to have begun to learn how to fabricate a warhead from highly enriched
uranium. It does not admit acquisition of centrifuges from the disgraced
Pakistan physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and it says nothing about acquiring from
his network the technology if not the materiel or the training and experience
needed to go the final steps to production of a uranium bomb.
Nor does the declaration reveal anything about proliferation of North Korea's
nuclear materiel, technology, training and expertise to other countries,
notably to Syria, where the Israelis bombed a facility to oblivion in
September. Similarly, it maintains silence on North Korea's history of nuclear
exchanges with other Middle Eastern countries, notably Iran, which has long
boasted of using highly enriched uranium for electrical power while denying any
Equally important, the declaration leaves out the question of what North Korea
has done with all the plutonium produced for warheads at its nuclear complex at
Yongbyon, 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang. There's no word on how many
warheads it has there, leaving intelligence analysts to repeat longstanding
estimates of anywhere from six to a dozen.
After having insisted repeatedly that North Korea had to "come clean" on its
uranium program and proliferation, and also account for all the plutonium
warheads, the US decided to forsake that approach in the interests of advancing
the protracted process of getting North Korea finally to abandon the entire
The North Koreans promised last October to deliver the declaration by the end
of last year, but held out for six months beyond then while spurning US demands
for far greater disclosure and transparency. The US chief negotiator,
Christopher Hill, indicated in a meeting with his North Korean counterpart, Kim
Kye-gwan, in Singapore in April that simple acknowledgement of concerns might
be a way out of the impasse.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, arriving in Japan on a swing that takes
her to South Korea on the weekend and then on to Beijing, papered over the
American climbdown with a face-saving promise to "continue to work for
verifiable denuclearization". In a spirit of first things first, she said "we
can have an upper hand in determining what may have happened in terms of
weaponization" after "verifiably" finding out how much plutonium has been made.
The inference from the diplomatic speak is that the US government has basically
decided to shelve the uranium issue in the interests of moving on with the deal
of February 13 of last year calling for North Korea's complete denuclearization
in return for enormous amounts of energy aid.
US analysts now say North Korea's enriched uranium program is so rudimentary as
not to pose a threat, and North Korea has complied on the major point of
stopping operations at Yongbyon preparatory to closing the facility altogether.
It is in that spirit that North Korea on Friday is staging one of the great
made-for-TV stories, blowing up the cooling tower at the Yongbyon complex for
the benefit of one television network from each of the five other signatories
to the six-party agreement, including China, the host of the talks.
CNN correspondent Christian Amanpour, who visited the complex in February
before the performance of the New York Philharmonic orchestra in Pyongyang and
interviewed North Korea's nuclear negotiator, Kim, has arrived in Pyongyang.
Foreign diplomats, including Sung Kim, head of the US State Department's Korea
desk and a key figure in recent talks, also are expected to attend the
explosion of the cooling tower. North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il clearly sees
that act as a dramatic way of convincing the world of his good intentions,
though it's largely of symbolic rather than practical significance since North
Korea has already gone quite far in disabling the Yongbyon complex.
Sung Kim whirled through Seoul on his way to Pyongyang but did not talk to
reporters, possibly for fear of questions about traces of uranium discovered on
some of the 18,000 documents that he and other US officials carried from
Pyongyang in May. North Korea turned over the documents to prove willingness to
comply with the nuclear agreement, but discovery by analysts of the uranium
traces offers further evidence of the existence of the program.
The North Korean declaration, however incomplete, marks another milestone in an
epic series of events that began in October 2002 when James Kelly, then US
assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, visited Pyongyang.
He said on his return that North Korea's vice foreign minister, Kang Sok-ju,
had acknowledged the existence of a uranium program in addition to the
plutonium program at Yongbyon that was suspended under terms of the 1994
nuclear framework agreement between the US and North Korea.
Kang's supposed acknowledgement led the US to stop shipping heavy fuel to North
Korea as stipulated in the agreement and then led North Korea to expel
inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at the end of 2002 and
resume fabrication of warheads from plutonium at Yongbyon in early 2003. At the
same time, the Korean Peninsular Development Organization, known as KEDO,
formed under the Geneva agreement to oversee construction near North Korea's
east coast of twin light-water nuclear energy reactors by South Korea, Japan
and others, ceased operations.
Negotiations for a new nuclear agreement gained urgency after North Korea fired
off several missiles in early July 2006, including a long-range Taepodong that
fizzled and splashed down near the takeoff site. It was after North Korea
conducted an underground nuclear test on October 9, 2006, however, that
diplomats scurried about in search of dialogue with a renewed sense of urgency.
Hill, who had replaced Kelly as assistant secretary of state, spearheaded the
US side with far greater freedom than Kelly ever had. He recommended that the
US sign on to a statement on September 19, 2005, in which the six parties
agreed in general terms on the North's giving up its nukes.
North Korea refused to cooperate, however, after the US Treasury Department
blacklisted Banco Delta Asia, an obscure bank in Macau through which North
Korea was channeling counterfeit US$100 bills. Cut off from international
financial dealings, the North did not return to the table until Hill worked out
a deal for transferring its funds out of Banco Delta Asia, via a Russia bank,
and the Treasury Department removed it from the blacklist.
North Korea, in complying with the demand for a declaration, has bargained hard
for two more understandings from the US that would legitimize its leadership in
the eyes of the rest of the world. The US has agreed to take steps to remove
North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism
and also has promised to lift economic sanctions barring business with
The deal carries no guarantee, however, that North Korea will get rid of its
nuclear weapons. All Hill would say is that "the North Koreas have acknowledged
that we have to deal with weapons".
That's a problem, Hill went on, that "we're going to deal with as soon as we
sit down again to begin to map out the remaining piece of this negotiation" -
an arduous process that's likely to go on interminably.
North Korea, meanwhile, is sure to demand much more aid, including those two
light-water energy reactors promised in the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, as
well as diplomatic relations with Washington and a peace treaty formally ending
the Korean War which ended in 1953.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.