[OUTLOOK]Reactor issue needs resolutionLight-water nuclear reactors were the solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, but have turned out to be the major stumbling block of another crisis in 2005. On Aug. 8, the 13-day exhausting fourth round of six-party talks for the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program was suspended over disagreement whether to allow the country the right to “peaceful” nuclear activities.
Washington insisted the North scrap all nuclear activities, military and civilian, while the North wanted a peaceful nuclear program and demanded the United States acknowledge its rights as a sovereign state to have this.
Now, the world waits for a green light from Washington and Pyongyang that the two sides have agreed to resume talks. Prospects for the talk’s success, however, even if they resume after more than a threeweek recess, are not that bright.
The major obstacles to the solution can be summed up in three categories.
First of all, what the North means by a peaceful nuclear program includes, among other things, a nuclear reactor for power generation ― the epicenter of North Korean nuclear crises since 1993.
Washington’s position on the North’s demand is clear enough. Christopher Hill, the U.S. chief negotiator to the six-party talks, said North Korea derailed the process by unexpectedly making a late demand for the right to operate light-water nuclear reactors. He added that he believed the North Koreans could use such reactors to secretly make material for nuclear weapons.
North Korea needs to either withdraw its demand for a nuclear reactor for peaceful use from the list, or take reasonable measures to assure Washington and its allies that Pyongyang will not violate international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation again.
Secondly, there is a gap in the positions of Washington and Seoul on the North’s right to a “peaceful” nuclear program. Although Ban Ki-moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, repeatedly denied any disagreement between Seoul and Washington, South Korean leaders, including President Roh Moo-hyun, have made remarks in support of the North’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear power. At a meeting with journalists on Aug.18, President Roh said, “The Korean government is of the opinion, in principle, that the right to peaceful use of nuclear power is granted to all nations.” Unification Minister Chung Dong-young went even further at an interview with an Internet media outlet. “Washington and its allies should grant North Korea the right to build its own reactors for power generation,” he said.
It should also be noted that Beijing and Moscow are sympathetic to the North’s claim to the right to a civilian nuclear program. There is also a question on the length of the nuclear reactor moratorium. Under any circumstances, the nuclear reactor ban is not sustainable in the long term. There are reasons for the allies to recommend Washington consider making a concession on the nuclear reactor ban, if the North satisfies certain conditions.
Thirdly, Washington has not given a persuasive explanation of why Pyongyang should be denied the right to have a nuclear reactor for power generation ― especially a light-water reactor believed by scientists to be difficult to use to make weapons-grade fuel, and which the United States urged North Korea to accept in compensation for closing down its graphite reactors in 1994. It is also necessary for Washington to explain why it continues to oppose North Korea’s civilian nuclear program, while acknowledging Iran’s right to pursue a similar program.
Christopher Hill said that North Korea’s demand for a civilian nuclear program was undermined by its track record of violating international treaties that banned it from using such a program for weapons development. He said, “This is a country, I think, that had trouble keeping peaceful energy peaceful.”
The North’s track-record of violating international treaties can be one of the reasons, but it doesn’t seem persuasive enough to convince Seoul, as well as Beijing and Moscow, to rally behind Washington. At least there should be an explanation why a light-water reactor that in 1994 was recommended for the North shouldn’t be allowed now.
For the success of the six-party talks, North Korea should first take the necessary measures to restore Washington’s confidence. It is a prerequisite that the North pledges to return to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and subjects itself to safeguards agreements and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition, Pyongyang must reflect on its track records of violating nonproliferation treaties and secretly pursuing a highly enriched uranium weapons development program.
On the basis of confidence being restored between Washington and Pyongyang, the participants in the six-party talks should work out detailed plans for easing North Korea’s energy shortages, especially the electricity supply. It can be said that the North’s acute electricity shortage is one reason for the North to pursue nuclear energy. In that sense, helping Pyongyang overcome its chronic power shortage will contribute to a solution to the nuclear impasse. The recent South Korean proposal to supply 2 million kilowatts of electricity to the North, and the resumption of heavy oil supply can be included in the discussions. Ultimately, however, the United States and its allies can’t avoid discussing whether to resume construction of the two light-water reactors in Shinpo, North Korea, that were begun by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization under the Geneva Agreed Framework between Washington and Pyongyang in 1994.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo