[Viewpoin]Doubts aplenty remain

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[Viewpoin]Doubts aplenty remain

The U.S. State Department had worked hard behind the scenes to persuade North Korea to submit a declaration on its nuclear program even if it was nearly six-months overdue. Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, had been busy meeting with his North Korean counterpart Kim Gye-gwan in Geneva, Singapore, Pyongyang and New York in efforts to persuade the North to comply with the agreement it signed in October last year.

Finally on June 26, North Korea submitted a 60-page declaration of its nuclear program then blew up a cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor the next day. The Bush administration immediately responded by saying it would remove the North from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The long-delayed six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program will also be resumed soon.

Indeed, the nuclear declaration and the demolition of the cooling tower mark a significant step forward in the effort to end North Korea’s nuclear program. It is a welcome sign not only to the Bush administration that played a leading role in that effort but also to the whole world that the isolated country is looking for international recognition. But no one considers these steps as proof that the North is giving up its long-held nuclear ambition.

First of all, the declaration omitted information about North Korea’s suspected uranium enrichment program and its sharing of nuclear technology with Syria. Moreover, Pyongyang did not include the bombs in its possession in the declaration. It had been insisting that the bombs were not the subject of discussion at the six-party talks.

The State Department official’s efforts did not stop at persuading obstinate North Koreans to comply with the set of agreements their country made at the six-party talks. Christopher Hill found himself sandwiched by North Korea on one side and opponents at home on the other. He had to do something extra to assure hardliners in Congress that Pyongyang’s declaration this time would be genuine. Two public events took place to this effect.

The first one was staged in Panmunjom in May. A group of U.S. State Department officials led by Sung Kim, director of State’s Office of Korean Affairs, walked through the joint security area carrying carton boxes, not diplomatic pouches, filled with 18,000 pages of documents related to North Korea’s past nuclear activities. The unusual diplomatic parade was made public through television and other news media. People who watched the scene on television must have been impressed by the sheer volume of documents North Korea handed over to the United States.

The second was the blowing up of the cooling tower of Yongbyon’s reactor last week. Sung Kim was the only government official from the participating countries in the six-party talks who was at the scene of the demolition. It was reported that he said the United States would pay for half of the demolition costs. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that the State Department promoted the demolition idea to get cooperation from hardliners in the U.S. Congress in getting approval for lifting sanctions on North Korea.

The Bush administration has suffered from criticism that it has made it possible for the North to collect enough plutonium for seven to eight nuclear bombs by refusing for six years to engage in a dialogue with Pyongyang after it terminated the 1994 Agreed Framework in 2002.

Watching Bush administration officials concentrate on the North’s plutonium program, I wonder whether the goal Bush has in mind is reducing North Korea’s plutonium program to the level it was in 2002. If that is the case, it means Washington has decided, in National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley’s words, “to accept incremental progress with North Korea instead of its previous all-or-nothing strategy.” It also means that it’s not possible to complete the process of verification and disablement within the next six months.

If the disablement process is to be handled by the next U.S. administration, then the Bush administration has to concentrate on verification of all nuclear programs and proliferation efforts, instead of focusing only on the plutonium program.

If the Bush administration fails to address the uranium enrichment program, which was the reason for the termination of the Geneva Agreement, it will be regarded as a pretext for the next North Korea nuclear crisis, just as suspected weapons of mass destruction was an excuse for the Iraq war.

North Korea’s suspected involvement in nuclear proliferation was not limited to Syria. There had been reports on the North’s suspected sharing of nuclear technology with other countries including Iran. One of them led to imposition of additional sanctions, and another to the establishment of a blockade around North Korea in 2003. If Washington fails to verify the suspicion, it will lose international credibility.

The most serious problem is the nuclear bomb or bombs in North Korea’s hands. The North wants to be recognized as a nuclear power while improving relations with the United States. But a nuclear-armed North Korea will be a threat to world peace as it will certainly jeopardize the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty system. The most affected will be, no doubt, its neighboring countries in Northeast Asia. In particular, South Korea, which has to confront a nuclear-armed North Korea, will be forced to change its security, defense and North Korea policies completely. I wonder whether Seoul will be ultimately forced to pursue its own nuclear arms program.

During his remaining time in office, therefore, Bush should not make any further concessions unless it gets satisfactory explanations on the unanswered questions on the North’s nuclear program. Washington has to also clarify whether the 18,000 pages of documents from Pyongyang contains any useful information ? or was it a bunch of papers as obsolete as the concrete cooling tower that was blasted away last week?


*The writer, a former editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily, is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

by Park Sung-soo
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