[Viewpoint] Clues to the North’s denuclearization

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[Viewpoint] Clues to the North’s denuclearization

Presidents Obama and Lee offered nothing new in their public statements on North Korea during Lee’s historic state visit to Washington last month. However, the two leaders obviously spent a lot of time behind closed doors strategizing about a way to return to denuclearization diplomacy with Pyongyang. The most significant development in recent weeks was not the meetings in Geneva between the United States and the North, but the announcement of the new special envoy for North Korea, Ambassador Glyn Davies. Davies’ appointment, in conjunction with the appointment of Clifford Hart as the special envoy for the six-party talks, rounds out a new negotiating team for the United States.

Both of these gentlemen are top-notch U.S diplomats. I have worked with both men, and I can attest to how much they are respected inside the U.S. State Department and in foreign ministries around Asia. Neither has had any previous experience dealing with North Korea, but they are quick learners. However, they face two challenges as they chart a course forward.

First, both diplomats will spend a good bit of time in South Korea and Japan. Neither has had any prolonged direct experience in Seoul or Tokyo, yet both know that at least 75 percent of Washington’s North Korea policy is coordinating closely with our two key allies. So, expect to see them in the region quite a bit.

Second, even as they get to know their South Korean and Japanese counterparts, the two will have to figure out how they will do negotiations differently than their predecessors. While many remain skeptical that denuclearization is achievable through diplomacy, efforts undeniably will be made to build on the 2005 six-party talks agreement by the Bush administration, which promised political and economic incentives in return for verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of all of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s nuclear foibles. The last agreement fell apart, however, when the North would not reveal its nuclear secrets to inspectors. The problem for Obama is that a new negotiation must avoid the same dead-end while still pursuing the goal of denuclearization. Economic and political incentives need to remain on the negotiating table, but the U.S. would do well to try to achieve peaceful denuclearization by building into its strategy three new elements.

The first is nuclear safety. Quite simply, you cannot dismantle that which is not safe. The meltdown that took place in Fukushima, Japan, was at an old but relatively safe complex by international standards. The Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea is anything but safe.

The International Atomic Energy Agency almost one decade ago deemed North Korean nuclear facilities, radiation shielding systems, cranes and waste disposal sites as seriously defective but has been unable to implement any safeguards in recent years. Construction practices at both the old plutonium complex and at the modern centrifuge enrichment facility revealed by the North Koreans in November 2010 are not compatible with international reactor safety standards, according to an American scientist who visited the site.

North Koreans admit to South Korean nuclear experts that their design team for the new light-water reactor is composed of young engineers trained in the North who learned by “trial and error.” Experts at the Nautilus Institute say that locating spent fuel rods near reactor cores or inside reactor secondary-containment buildings is incredibly dangerous and could contribute to a possible meltdown scenario. North Korea’s unreliable power grid has also been shown to be a pathway that could lead to accidental crash shutdowns.

Engaging in talks on nuclear safety as part of the larger denuclearization discussion would be in the interest of all parties. Reactors and their related facilities in North Korea need to be made safe before they can be safely dismantled. Disasters, either man-made or natural, of much lesser magnitude than the Fukushima tsunami and earthquake, could result in an unstable nuclear complex. A meltdown at Yongbyon would have broader implications by virtue of the plant’s proximate location to the Asian mainland.

The second new way to get at denuclearization would be to engage North Korea in a serious discussion about nuclear deterrence. The point here would be to convince the North that it is in the worst of two worlds with its handful of weapons.

First, this cache, absent a demonstrated long-range missile reentry capability and any evidence of warhead miniaturization, does not come close to the definition of a credible nuclear deterrent. So, the North gets no added security from these weapons. And second, Pyongyang’s mistaken belief that it has a credible deterrent could get it into deep kimchi.

The recent string of unprecedented provocations against the South gives one the uneasy feeling that Pyongyang may believe that it is invulnerable to retaliation given its nuclear capabilities. This erroneous belief is a recipe for escalation as Seoul is determined to respond militarily and lethally to the next provocation. Responsible parties need to sit down with the North and explain the ABCs of nuclear deterrence, just as we did with the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nuclear era.

The third avenue to denuclearization is related to energy. In the past two nuclear agreements, North Korea has wanted light-water nuclear reactors. The 1994 agreement promised two and started a process to build them. The 2005 agreement followed the spirit of the previous agreement. But in the aftermath of Fukushima, light-water reactors should not be in North Korea’s future. It would be hard to sleep at night without knowing if Pyongyang were operating these things safely.

So, it would be in everyone’s interest to find an alternative energy quid pro quo for denuclearization. When I participated in the six-party talks, one alternative put forth by the South Koreans was conventional electricity. The recent talks between Russia and the North about gas pipelines might be another. But nuclear energy for the North should be off the table.

These ideas are admittedly out of the box. But not engaging in a pragmatic manner on nuclear safety and deterrence could spell disaster as U.S. diplomats negotiate endlessly on the same difficult and intractable issues that have plagued our pursuit of Pyongyang’s weapons programs for the past 25 years.

*The writer is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

By Victor D. Cha
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