North Korea Nuclear Agreement Awaits 'Moment of Truth'

By Patrick Goodenough | October 4, 2007 | 8:18pm EDT

( - In return for one million tons of heavy fuel oil and steps by the United States and Japan to normalize relations with North Korea, the Stalinist regime has promised to declare all of its nuclear programs and "disable" three facilities by year's end.

That's the core of a landmark agreement released by the Chinese government Wednesday, a 700-word document that is striking not only for its contents, but for what is left out.

The product of lengthy six-party talks in Beijing involving representatives of the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, the deal was welcomed by President Bush, who said it reflected the common commitment of the six countries "to realize a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons."

A key step requires North Korea to provide, by December 31, "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs."

The word "uranium" does not appear in the carefully worded agreement, although a separate fact sheet released by the State Department said that the declaration which the North Koreans are expected to provide includes "clarification regarding the uranium issue."

"When we talk about a full declaration of all their nuclear activities ... all means all," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.

The issue is a crucial one, as highly enriched uranium (HEU) can be used to manufacture atomic weapons.

The nuclear dispute broke out when State Department officials confronted the North Koreans at an Oct. 2002 meeting with evidence of a clandestine HEU program, activity that clearly violated a 1994 nuclear-freeze pact with the U.S. known as the Agreed Framework. The U.S. says North Korea admitted it.

Since then, however, the reclusive regime has consistently denied this, admitting only to the existence of known plutonium-based facilities at Yongbyon.

As the Agreed Framework unraveled, North Korea took the plutonium-based project out of mothballs and resumed work. It subsequently said it had built atomic bombs -- presumably with plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods at Yongbyon -- and claimed last October to have tested one.

Under a previous agreement reached at six-party talks last February, North Korea in July shut down the reactor at Yongbyon and allowed U.N. inspectors -- kicked out in late 2002 -- to return.

Under this week's new agreement, North Korea has now agreed to complete the disabling of the reactor, a reprocessing plant and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility at Yongbyon by the end of the year.

The U.S. has agreed to lead the disabling activities and to provide the initial funding. An advance team of Americans will visit the site next week "to prepare for disablement."

Asia specialist Ralph Cossa, a veteran observer of the six-party process, said Thursday the agreement was a significant one, but cautioned that "we have miles to go before we sleep."

On the absence of any reference to uranium in the agreement, Cossa said that this did leave room for "different interpretations later." As such, he said, Pyongyang's declaration due by the end of the year will be the "moment of truth."

Cossa, who is president of the Honolulu-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum, said it was his guess that the North Koreans believe they can get additional rewards for acknowledging HEU at a later stage.

He also noted other potential problem areas. The word "bomb" -- that is, accounting for existing nuclear weapons -- appeared nowhere in the texts released Wednesday. Furthermore, not all nuclear-related facilities are slated to be disabled by the end of the year, only the three specified ones at Yongbyon.

Also glaringly missing from the agreement is any reference to light-water reactors. In the Agreed Framework, the Clinton administration pledged to help build two civilian LWRs -- considered safer than the graphite-based reactor at Yongbyon -- to help meet Pyongyang's energy needs. When the 1994 deal collapsed, worked stopped on the LWR project, and the U.S. has since then resisted recurrent North Korean demands that it resume.

Cossa said the LWR issue was "temporarily gone but not forgotten and sure to come back up," with North Korea likely to attribute Washington's stance as another demonstration of American hostility.

Getting off the list

Under the deal, North Korea will get one million tons of heavy fuel oil or equivalent aid. The agreement did not specify which outside countries would provide it, but South Korea and China have sent fuel shipments this year, and Bush last week authorized $25 million in fuel aid to North Korea.

Moving towards a full diplomatic relationship, U.S. commitments include removing North Korea from a list of state-sponsors of terrorism, and taking steps to make the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) no longer apply to North Korea. Under the 90-year-old legislation, North Korea and Cuba are currently subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

Chris Hill, the State Department negotiator at the six-party talks, said during a phone briefing Wednesday there was no timeframe for removing North Korea from the terror-sponsor list, but said the two sides have held "extensive" discussions "on what needs to be done" to get off the list.

As has been the case throughout more than four years of the on again-off again six-party talks, the sensitive issue of sequencing remains vague, and the new agreement does not provide a detailed timeline for each side's pledged actions.

The text says, "the United States will fulfill its commitments to the DPRK [North Korea] in parallel with the DPRK's actions," while the State Department factsheet says, "U.S. action related to the terrorism designation and TWEA application will depend on the DPRK's fulfillment of its commitments."

A separate clause in the agreement deals with relations between North Korea and Japan. They agree to "make sincere efforts to normalize their relations expeditiously ... on the basis of the settlement of the unfortunate past and the outstanding issues of concern."

Unresolved issues between the two countries include sensitivities remaining from Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula in the first half of last century; North Korea's missile threats against Japan; Pyongyang's granting of safe haven to Japanese terrorists involved in the 1970 hijacking of a Japanese airliner to North Korea; and its kidnapping of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, apparently to train spies in Japanese language and culture.

Proliferation concerns

Another key commitment by North Korea is a pledge "not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how."

A recent Israeli air-strike inside Syria, still shrouded in mystery, prompted speculation - by former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton among others - that Israel may have targeted a Syrian-North Korean joint nuclear or missile project. One of several circulating theories held that North Korea moved some nuclear-related material to Syria so it wouldn't have to disclose or relinquish it under a six-party deal. A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman on Sept. 11 called the Israeli action "a very dangerous provocation" and voiced "solidarity" with Syria.

Hill was asked several times during Wednesday's briefing whether North Korea's dealings with Syria had come up in the talks. He said proliferation "has been an issue of continuing concern for a long time" but he did not specifically cite Syria.

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