Can America Secure
a North Korean Nuclear 'Reversal'?
Korea allows IAEA inspectors to verify the suspension of its nuclear enrichment
plant, it would be possible to learn more about the current stage of its
program. Remember that only one group of foreigners has ever seen the inside of
the installation, and then only briefly. It is interesting to note that the
North Koreans know that an inspection will reveal more about their
capabilities. Why are they taking this step? It’s hard to say."
The recent agreement
signed between the United States and North Korea is an important step for
three reasons. First of all, because it buys time. Another nuclear test
followed by news that North Korea is able to miniaturize missile warheads would
only make a bad situation worse. The agreement pushed this further into the
distance, contingent upon progress being made in renewed talks.
Secondly, in addition to
halting activities at its uranium enrichment plant, if North Korea allows IAEA
inspectors to verify the suspension of operation, it would be possible to learn
more about the current stage of its nuclear program. Remember that only one
group of invited foreigners has ever seen the inside of the installation, and
then only briefly. It is interesting to note that the North Koreans know that a
future inspection will reveal more information about their capabilities. Why
are they taking this step? It’s hard to say.
Finally, this arrangement can
help build a foundation for further progress toward stopping, and then
eventually, reversing, the DPRK’s nuclear effort. Many specialists speak of
“denuclearization,” not understanding that this process cannot emerge
overnight, particularly with a program that is almost five decades old. Note
that North Korea is not Libya: its eventual “denuclearization” will first
require a “freeze” to then a “reversal,” which will take time.
A series of potential
problems appear on horizon after unilateral statements from both countries.
Food distribution will not be a problem, since most of the details have now
been resolved. The implementation of the moratorium, however, appears fraught
with difficulty, as it requires North Korea and the IAEA to work jointly on
safeguard measures, particularly at the nuclear plant in Yongbyon. There is a
history of bad relations between the two, although the few times that North
Korea has agreed to work with the agency, it clearly did so because it was in
their interest, as it seems to be this time.
The unilateral declaration of
North Korea makes it clear that “priority will be given to a discussion of
issues related to the lifting of sanctions and providing nuclear power plants.”
Pyongyang insists that this must happen for it to give up its uranium
enrichment and nuclear weapons programs. That is problematic, as there is no
country interested in providing nuclear plants to North Korea. But China may be
an exception, provided that the West pays the bill.
One might ask why this
agreement has just been reached. That's a good question. None of the experts
thought anything would happen in 2012, since it's an election year in the U.S.
and one would have suspected little interest in Pyongyang for reaching new
deals. This agreement was a great surprise to many. It is hard to say what's
happening, except the U.S. seems to have finally understood that its policy of
“strategic patience” - trying to convince Pyongyang to change its bad behavior
by means of pressure and isolation - has failed. Pressure and isolation are
good, but without extending the hand of diplomacy, they lead to a deadlock. The
resemblance to the case of Iran is no coincidence.
On why North Korea made this
move, some might say that this agreement proves that U.S. “strategic patience”
has worked, and that Pyongyang is “giving in.” More attentive analysts,
however, believe that this may reflect a desire on the part of North Korea to
escape the “Chinese bear hug” in the context of a relationship that is much
stronger today than it was in the past.
Others see this as a tactical
step, taken because North Korea wants to maintain a calm external environment
during the first year of a leadership transition. Still others believe that the
North agreed to a moratorium because it really isn't ready to carry out further
nuclear or missile tests and needs more time to work on its enrichment program
at Yongbyon. All of these explanations are possible.
*Leonam dos Santos
Guimarães holds a doctorate in naval and nuclear engineering, is an assistant
to the chairman of Eletrobrás Eletronuclear and is a member of the IAEA’s
Permanent Advisory Group.
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