To truly abandon its nuclear program, Pyongyang must meet four international requirements–at present, an unlikely scenario.
The sixth round of the Six-Party Talks has just concluded with a quietly released press
communique. This was the first (and probably last) meeting in which all the delegates were in a
light mood. The true bargaining will take place at the next meeting, which is sure to be more
difficult for two reasons: (1) North Korea has asked for a light water reactor, which the United
States has refused to provide; and (2) the United States and other parties have asked North Korea
to completely dismantle any nuclear weapons it may possess, a demand Pyongyang has consistently
To the international community, North Korean nuclear disarmament entails meeting four
The list must include all nuclear facilities, all fissionable materials, and all nuclear weapons
or devices. At most, Pyongyang will offer a list of items the international community already knows
about, such as the five Yongbyon facilities listed in the 1994 Agreed Framework.
North Korea can’t get around its uranium program. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has
already admitted to transferring centrifuges to North Korea. So far, Pyongyang has denied
Musharraf’s claim. But if this centrifuge discrepancy cannot be accounted for, it will leave a
serious flaw in North Korea’s “abandonment” of nuclear weapons.
Thus far, any joint agreements, documents, or communiques have used the vague term “disablement”
instead of dismantlement. For genuine nuclear disarmament, the definition of dismantlement should
be clear–to physically destroy the arms irreversibly. Disablement is much too vague, since it
could mean physical deactivation.
Recently, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) leadership visited Yongbyon to understand
what North Korea means when it says it intends to disable the nuclear facilities there. Reportedly,
North Korea will disable its nuclear reactor, but leave spent fuel inside; this would likely allow
Pyongyang to quickly reactivate the reactor if necessary. To dismantle rather than “disable”
Yongbyon, the spent fuel should be removed from the reactor–and then from the country. The reactor
should also be completely physically dismantled.
This fissile material might have been placed in weapons or stockpiled, or it might remain inside
the radioactive spent fuel. Either way, it must be shipped out of North Korea. Otherwise, there’s
no assured way of preventing North Korea from reusing it in the future. In addition, North Korea
must declare, verify, and physically dismantle any nuclear weapons.
After North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons, it shall once again become a non-nuclear weapons
state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As such, it must allow IAEA inspections.
This means reasonably allowing challenge inspections of undeclared facilities that the IAEA
suspects (with facts, of course) might violate the NPT. The international community must also be
sensitive, however, not overreaching with its demands.
There are sufficient reasons to believe that North Korea will not meet the four requirements.
Pyongyang is unlikely to declare its nuclear weapons status, nor will it probably allow its nuclear
facilities to be dismantled or submit all its fissile material for irreversible physical disposal.
(During past negotiations, Pyongyang has clearly stated that future disarmament will not include
its nuclear weapons.) And it’s nearly impossible that North Korea will accept intrusive challenge
The last round of Six-Party Talks seems to have addressed some of these issues, but it didn’t
resolve any of the terms above. As long as North Korea refuses to address the dismantlement of its
nuclear weapons–the core reason for the Six-Party Talks, the course of Pyongyang’s nuclear
disarmament is uncertain.
Any agreement is further complicated by the dispute over the light water reactor. North Korea
has agreed to abandon all of its current civilian nuclear facilities, but wants a new light water
reactor as compensation. The United States understands this is a North Korean tactic to maintain a
legal, civilian nuclear power program as a type of nuclear deterrent. The fight for the light water
reactor climaxed in September 2005 and continued during this last round of the Six-Party Talks.
It is natural for North Korea to want to give up the least and gain as much as it can in these
disarmament negotiations. And the current dialogue offers some hope at least for the time being
that the tension on the Korean Peninsula can be quelled. But as long as the core requirements of
any disarmament agreement between Washington and Pyongyang remain sticking points, there’s a limit
to any possible rapprochement.
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