- By Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish is associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, he wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea. His articles have also appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and the Los Angeles Times.
The agreement announced yesterday between the United States and North Korea has been greeted with both cheers and jeers. Optimists see this latest development as a small, necessary first step on the path toward a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons — and this, for a relatively modest amount of aid. Pessimists see it as just more of the same — yet another ploy by a corrupt, failed and cynical North Korean leadership making meaningless commitments in exchange for badly needed food.
Here is a guest post from Philip Yun, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund and a former advisor to the State Department during talks with North Korea from 1998-2001. Yun sees the significance of the agreement in the surprisingly number of differences in the statements issued by the United States and the DPRK.
Normally, the U.S. State Department announcement and the DPRK Foreign Ministry statement should be almost the same, as language and details are typically coordinated before final announcements are made. The two documents’ striking discrepancies and omissions in significant places making me wonder if a "meeting of the minds" actually took place:
"While productive dialogues continue." The DPRK agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile activity, and uranium enrichment activity at their main reactor site in Yongbyon, as well as IAEA monitoring of uranium enrichment activities "while productive dialogues continue." The U.S. statement makes no mention of this qualifier. Did North Korea just add this unilaterally?
No starting date. The three moratoriums are potentially significant because they concretely limit North Korea’s ability (for as long as the moratorium is in place) to produce more fissile material, improve its weapons design through miniaturization and refine its weapons delivery systems. In exchange, the United States agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of nutritional biscuits. But when do the moratoriums take place? And how will the food be delivered and under what conditions? The U.S. statement specifically refers to "intensive monitoring" of this aid, but the DPRK statement bears no mention of such monitoring.
What about the other facilities? Many experts believe that North Korea has uranium enrichment facilities in other locales, but an initial reading of the statements appears to apply the moratorium to Yongbyon only. Were there any understandings for other locations? If limited to Yongbyon (which is start, but access to other sites inevitably remains a major issue for both the United States and the North), when will the IAEA go to Yongbyon and under what conditions?
What about that light water reactor? The DPRK statement raises the issue of light water reactors (LWRs). The State Department’s version doesn’t mention LWRs. The DRPK has been persistent through the years about its demand and right to have an operational LWR, which the United States since 2003 has resisted or ignored — LWRs were central to the U.S.-DPRK nuclear deal of 1994 and a significant sticking point in negotiations of September 2005 Joint Statement. Does this new agreement require North Korea to stop its ongoing construction of a light water reactor at Yongbyon, which according to the North, is for the production of electricity? Last year at Fukushima we saw what can happen to a nuclear plant built with the best materials and to the highest standards. Yongbyon is being constructed with far lower standards: a similar disaster would be dire.
Will there be a peace treaty? Both statements contain a reference to the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The State Department and DPRK versions both say that they recognized the Armistice as "the cornerstone of peace and stability;" but the DPRK added, "until the conclusion of a peace treaty." The subject of a peace treaty and its impact has posed a whole series of long-standing issues military, legal and otherwise. This difference just adds to the overall need to clarify what exactly was agreed to between the United States and the DPRK.
This latest news could be a very good sign that North Korea’s leadership is willing to make commitments. So long as China continues to shield North Korea as it has, a concerted, sustained and focused diplomatic push with North Korea appears to be the only way to move forward. Having IAEA inspectors on the ground in North Korea would especially be extremely useful — rather than speculating about North Korean activity and relying on rumor, we would have something more concrete to consider. However, if progress is to be made, we have to avoid unpleasant surprises. The U.S. must figure out a way to patch the holes that still seem to exist between the two negotiating parties or this latest development may once again set expectations too high. In short, the devil is in the details – and we had better find out quickly what they are.