[Viewpoint]Cooling the nuclear cardOver the weekend, we saw the demolition of the cooling tower at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant.
It was a symbolic moment.
Yongbyon’s already aging nuclear facility was a cooling tower, not a main facility.
However, we should welcome the cooling tower’s demise because it marks Pyongyang’s official declaration that it has abandoned its nuclear program.
The Bush administration has for long criticized the 1994 Geneva Agreement as a mistake by a naive Clinton administration.
As Washington has turned to a dialogue-oriented policy with North Korea in early 2007, it has been difficult to reach an agreement with results any more tangible than the Geneva Agreement.
But the flattening of the cooling tower means the Bush administration can now claim the abandonment of the Yongbyon facility as a major diplomatic accomplishment.
Pyongyang has reported its nuclear program and knocked out the cooling tower. Washington is removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and is lifting trade sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
American politicians are responding with prudence. Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama are watching closely to see whether North Korea will in fact keep its promises.
There are more than a couple of challenges to be resolved related to the denuclearization of North Korea.
First of all, it is known that Pyongyang’s report on the nuclear program does not include the uranium enrichment issue or Pyongyang’s role in proliferating the nuclear program to Syria. The United States has demanded explanations about these issues.
The uranium enrichment program was the major issue that ignited the current nuclear crisis, but North Korea denied the existence of the program, and also strongly denied providing Syria with nuclear know-how.
Whether North Korea will cooperate with thorough verification of its nuclear facilities as demanded by the United States is uncertain. Washington will want a stringent verification process, not only at the Yongbyon facility but also at other research facilities. Pyongyang is likely to refuse.
The Bush Administration has to lift sanctions in response to North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear program according to the action-for-action principle agreed to in the six-party talks.
However, the administration needs the help of Congress. Therefore, Washington will try to get as much cooperation from North Korea as possible on the verification process of nuclear materials and facilities and the procedure for monitoring the uranium enrichment program and nuclear proliferation activities. The administration can quell the opposition of Congress only with tangible outcomes.
The United States will also urge North Korea to be more active in pursuing the Japanese abduction case to soothe Tokyo’s dissatisfaction about the removal of sanctions.
After all, the third phase of denuclearization according to the February 13 agreement, the dismantlement of nuclear facilities, is likely to be handed over to the next administration.
However, we cannot be sure whether the next administration will continue with the negotiations pursued by the Bush administration. It depends on whether North Korea is willing to cooperate in the next six to seven months.
North Korea wants removal of sanctions, economic assistance, and normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. Pyongyang will play its nuclear card for the biggest possible return. But, if it plays its hand too much, the U.S. will grow distrustful of the North, and the new administration will be more likely to reconsider Washington’s North Korea policy.
Moreover, Pyongyang will demand the construction of a light-water reactor at a certain point during the third phase. If the North raises the issue before the United States’ trust grows sufficiently, the North-U.S. negotiation is likely to face a challenge. While the United States wants to provide a light-water reactor after complete denuclearization of the North, Pyongyang could likely demand it before the denuclearization.
Lastly, a difficult point in the dispute is what to do with the nuclear weapons North Korea has produced.
Pyongyang insists the nuclear arsenal should not be included in the agenda of the six-party talks, and excluded from its nuclear declaration.
North Korea wants to improve relations with the United States and to be recognized as a nuclear power. If it is not possible, Pyongyang won’t give up its nuclear weapons until Washington abandons hostile policies toward the North and grants all demands, such as improving diplomatic relations, withdrawal of the U.S. forces from the South and providing light-water reactors.
The road to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is long and rough. However, we can mostly predict the obstacles that can get in the way.
Keeping all possible problems in mind, Korea needs to pursue long-term strategies and specific tactics to play our role as the interested party in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
*The writer is a professor of international politics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Young-kwan