Yale University

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Lee Sigal '64 on the Korean crisis

Lee Sigal has written two articles for the Boston Globe on the subject of North Korea's nuclear capability. Lee is director of the Northeast Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.

February 12, 2005: North Korea's Tactics

December 6, 2003: Words, Not Tantrums, to Resolve Korean Crisis

February 12, 2005

North Korea's Tactics

NORTH KOREA sold uranium in gaseous form to Libya in 2002, US officials just told Japan, South Korea, and China. Worse yet, the North is now publicly claiming what US intelligence long suspected ― that it has the bomb. If so, these developments make it all the more imperative to resume negotiations. That will require Washington to tell Pyongyang directly and authoritatively the steps it is prepared to take to end enmity if the North eliminates its nuclear weapons programs.

Instead, the Bush administration is urging China to put pressure on the North to accept its current negotiating position in six-party talks. That is a waste of time. Knowing Pyongyang will not do something for nothing, Beijing is not about to press it until Washington puts a more equitable offer on the table.

The latest turn in the nuclear crisis came after experts at the Oak Ridge laboratory reportedly concluded that uranium gas found in Libya came from North Korea. If so, that could put the North a step closer to enriching uranium, an explosive ingredient in nuclear weapons.

A North Korean mine may have been the source of the suspect uranium. To be suitable for enrichment, however, that uranium has to be converted into a gas, uranium hexafluoride, which is then spun in centrifuges to separate out the U-235 used to power nuclear reactors or bombs.

Even if it made the uranium gas, North Korea is still years away from manufacturing enough centrifuges to mass-produce highly enriched uranium for bombs, according to US intelligence. That allows the time it will take to negotiate a detailed agreement to eliminate the North's enrichment program verifiably.

Much more urgently, a North Korean reactor is now generating plutonium for nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also says it completed reprocessing plutonium that it removed from that reactor in 1994. While the administration has been dithering, North Korea could be making five or six more nuclear weapons out of that plutonium.

What makes the administration's delay in dealing difficult to fathom is that in the latest round of six-party talks, North Korea said it was ready to halt its plutonium program as a first step to dismantling it. As part of its freeze, it would place the 1994 plutonium under international inspection. But it is unlikely to turn over any weapons it may have until after the United States improves relations fundamentally.

Does Pyongyang mean what it says? The surest way to find out is sustained diplomatic give-and-take.

Pyongyang isn't asking for much. It wants to exchange "words for words" and "action for action." It wants Washington to commit now to normalize relations and give it written assurances not to attack it, impede its economic development, or overthrow its government. It also wants the United States to join Japan and South Korea in resuming shipments of heavy fuel oil promised under the 1994 Agreed Framework, take it off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and relax related sanctions.

This underscores Pyongyang's basic stance that if Washington remains its foe, it feels threatened and will seek nuclear arms to counter that threat, but if Washington ends enmity, it says it will not.

Agreeing to normalize relations and provide written security assurances makes sense if North Korea agrees to freeze and eliminate any nuclear programs it has. That means not only plutonium reprocessing but also uranium enrichment, something it has not yet agreed to do. The details of a verifiable elimination of enrichment could be worked out in the future.

North Korea began acquiring the means to enrich uranium from Pakistan in
1998 after the Clinton administration failed to live up to its commitments in the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Pyongyang's tactics convinced many in Washington it was determined to arm and should be punished for brazenly breaking its commitments. It was not.
Instead, it was playing tit for tat ― cooperating whenever Washington cooperated and retaliating when Washington reneged, in an effort to end hostile relations. It still is.

North Korea is the embodiment of evil to some Americans, who object to making a pact with the devil. Why they prefer to bluff and bluster while watching North Korea adds to its nuclear might instead of disarming it through give-and-take is a mystery of their faith.

December 6, 2003

Words, Not Tantrums, to Resolve Korean Crisis

AFTER MONTHS of watching North Korea move ahead on nuclear arms without doing anything effective to stop it, President Bush has wisely decided to try negotiating with Kim Jong Il for a change. "He wanted a security agreement," the president told reporters after last month's APEC summit meeting, "and we're willing to advance a multiparty security agreement, assuming that he is willing to abandon his nuclear weapons designs and programs."

Ignoring the president's change of heart, administration hard-liners still balk at turning his words into a specific proposal for the second round of six-nation talks slated to begin this month. That is sure to alienate Japan and South Korea, who have been pressing the United States to negotiate in earnest.

The North has begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel that it removed from its reactor in 1994. It has refueled and restarted its reactor at Yongbyon. It is also making gas centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium, another way to make bombs.

No one outside the inner circle in Pyongyang knows for sure whether it has finished reprocessing or already made a nuclear weapon or two with the plutonium it reprocessed before 1992. North Korean officials have made contradictory statements about how far they have gone, but they have been clearer about their willingness to negotiate away their nuclear program.

In the August round of six-party talks, North Korea's Kim Il Yong told other negotiators, "It is not our goal to have nuclear weapons," and spelled out how his country would first refreeze and dismantle its nuclear sites. Pyongyang no longer insists on a nonaggression pact as a first step. Instead, Kim said, it seeks an agreement in principle in which it would "clarify its will to dismantle its nuclear program if the United States makes clear its will to give up its hostile policy toward the DPRK (North Korea)."

Kim spelled out a sequence of simultaneous steps Pyongyang would take with Washington. It "will allow the refreeze of our nuclear facility and nuclear substance and monitoring and inspection of them from the time the United States has concluded a nonaggression treaty with the DPRK and compensated for the loss of electricity."

"Nonaggression treaty" is the North's infelicitous choice of words for a written pledge that the United States will not attack it, not interfere in its internal affairs, and not impede its economic development by continuing sanctions or discouraging aid and investment from South Korea and Japan. Next, it will settle the missile issue ― "put on ice its missile test-firing and stop its [missile] export" ― once the United States and Japan open diplomatic relations. Then, it "will dismantle [its] nuclear facility from the time the [light-water reactors promised under the Agreed Framework] are completed."

Does Pyongyang mean what it says? The surest way to find out is diplomatic give-and-take. That's why Tokyo and Seoul have urged Washington to make a counteroffer. That requires the Bush administration to do something it has not yet done ― decide what it wants most and what it would offer in return.

A US agreement in principle to end enmity and improve political and economic relations makes sense if the North freezes its plutonium and uranium programs while negotiations proceed. Pyongyang has also asked for the resumption of heavy fuel oil shipments and an increase in food aid, which Washington cut back this year. Even some electricity from South Korea is not too much to provide in return.

As desirable as they are, inspections take time to arrange. They can wait. While Pyongyang would do well to let inspectors back into Yongbyon soon, US intelligence can monitor a freeze of the North's plutonium plants there by satellites and other technical means. That is not the case with enrichment sites whose location is unknown.

According to US intelligence, however, North Korea will not be ready to produce much highly enriched uranium until "mid-decade," allowing time to arrange for access.

Dismantling comes next. The United States initially demanded that the North eliminate its enrichment program before it would even hold talks, but that made no sense: the last thing we would want is for dismantling to take place without inspectors to witness it, as happened in Iraq.

Pyongyang's missile program can be dealt with in parallel. The first priority is what the North offered in Beijing ― a ban on missile test launches and exports of missile technology. Dismantling of missiles and production sites would then have to be negotiated.

Now that both Pyongyang and Washington have wasted many months throwing tantrums and flexing their muscles, it's time they try words to resolve the crisis in Korea.