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  Global Views
Uranium at the Core
By Ralph A Cossa
Representatives of six countries — North and South Koreas, US, China, Japan, and Russia — shake hands prior to the opening of the Fourth Six-Party Talks at the Diaoyutai () State Guest House in Beijing on July 26, 2005. From left to right: US State Department's Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill (), North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-Gwan (ή), Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Daiwei (), Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (), Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Alexeyev, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon (), and Kenichiro Sasae (˰), director of the Asia and Oceania Bureau at Japan's Foreign Ministry.

HIROSHIMA, July 26, 2005 — The six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons programs resume in Beijing on July 26 after a 13-month hiatus. But what are the prospects for success? Some, particularly in China and South Korea, see the mere act of talking as progress, and certainly talking is better than not talking. But it is clearly not enough.

The US, for one, has made it clear that it is expecting some movement toward its ultimate goal: the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a goal which, at least on paper, the other five parties (China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea) profess to share. "We don't intend to engage in talks for talks' sake," insisted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In fact, all six parties, in one way or another, have said they want to see real progress made at this fourth plenary session.

Progress is indeed possible, if Pyongyang is serious about trading away its nuclear programs and Washington is equally serious about cutting a deal. There are some positive indications that this may finally be the case. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly told visiting South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young that the 1992 Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was the "dying wish" of his father and was "still valid."

This gives the junior Kim the political cover he needs (if, in fact, he really needs political cover, as some analysts suggest) to press on with denuclearization. Of note, the 1992 declaration, while not ruling out nuclear power plants (the South has several of them), prohibits reprocessing, which has (rightfully) been one of Washington's major concerns about Pyongyang's "peaceful" nuclear-energy program.

Washington has also indicated it is prepared to be more flexible regarding economic incentives, praising the South's recent energy proposal (which presumably lays to rest the resumption of the 1994 Agreed Framework's ill-fated light-water reactor project or LWR). Rice has cautioned that "North Korea's energy needs will be considered only after North Korea agrees to dismantle completely its nuclear weapons program."

This is significant since the original Washington position was that no rewards would be provided until dismantlement was complete. While Washington is still not prepared to "reward bad behavior" in advance, it seems willing to allow Seoul and others to do so in return for North Korea's agreement to dismantle, with rewards no doubt timed to coincide with concrete actions by Pyongyang.

While the negotiating process promises to be a long, drawn-out one, observers will have an early indication of Pyongyang's seriousness. This can be summed up in one word: uranium. The crisis began with the revelation that North Korea had a clandestine uranium-based weapons program that subverted the 1994 US-North Korea agreement to denuclearize the peninsula in return for energy assistance (heavy fuel oil deliveries, followed by the construction of two LWRs).

According to the US, Pyongyang privately acknowledged the program, but now publicly denies this. Complete denuclearization requires Pyongyang to acknowledge all its nuclear programs.

Again there is some hope. The US has been claiming that the North has a (weapons-related) highly enriched uranium program. According to Chinese interlocutors, while the North rejects this claim, it has been more circumspect about the existence of a possible (energy-related) uranium enrichment program. Acknowledging the centrifuges of which Washington has firm evidence Pyongyang has acquired but maintains are for a peaceful fuel fabrication program – while not necessarily credible – would provide one way to get past this hurdle.

If Pyongyang really accepts the South's offer to satisfy the North's electrical energy needs, then it no longer needs a peaceful nuclear energy program and can give up (or, more likely, sell back) its uranium enrichment equipment. There is also the "A Q Kim option," where the North can suddenly discover a rogue scientist conducting programs behind the Dear Leader's back.

As outlandish as this sounds, a similar cover story was used to explain Pyongyang's about-face when it finally acknowledged that Japanese civilians had been kidnapped. (The A Q relates to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program who has confessed to proliferation, but on a purely individual, not state, basis.)

It is too early to be either optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for success of the talks, but how Pyongyang deals or fails to deal with the uranium issue will provide a major indication of the North's sincerity.

Note: The North added an eleventh-hour wrinkle by calling for a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice. This was Pyongyang's for the asking in 1999 when, for reasons still not explained but presumed to be centered around its reluctance to sign a treaty if Seoul was a signatory, the North walked away from the four-party talks (with the South, China and the US), which were aimed specifically at achieving that objective. It is not clear if the latest demand is for a bilateral US-North Korea treaty (which Washington would and should find unacceptable) or if the North is finally ready to involve the South in the process.

Ralph A Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and senior editor of Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal.




 

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