Have negotiators turned a critical nuclear corner on the Korean peninsula? This is the question doing the rounds after North Korea released a document last week listing its N-programmes and facilities, and blew up the cooling tower of the Yongbyon N-reactor. To recall: in 1994, US President Bill Clinton negotiated the ‘Agreed Framework’, which froze the Yongbyon reactor, locking its fuel rods that could be reprocessed into plutonium, and placed international monitors inside the facility. But in 2001, President George W Bush trashed the Framework. Pyongyang responded by kicking out the inspectors and reprocessing the fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium. By 2003, North Korea had reprocessed enough fuel rods to build half a dozen atomic bombs. This led to the ‘six-party talks’ — involving the US, China, Russia, Japan, and the two Koreas — to try to resolve the imbroglio.
North Korea eventually withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and conducted a nuclear test in 2006. In hindsight, the abandonment of talks gave Pyongyang licence to become a nuclear power.
Had Mr Bush stuck with diplomacy, North Korea might not have been able to make a nuclear weapon. If the past is anything to go by, it’s not implausible that Pyongyang is now trying to gain more leverage in the next round of negotiations. Even the latest ‘list’ speaks only of plutonium reprocessing activities at Yongbyon. There is no mention of Pyongyang’s weapons stockpiles, test sites, or its clandestine uranium enrichment programme.
But that said, some deal is better than no deal at all, especially since there appears to be a clear change in the US policy on North Korea — from one of confrontational posturing to negotiations. The US’s offer of security guarantees and help in reviving North Korea’s collapsed economy, in return for Pyongyang’s renunciation, could eventually nudge the country towards a free market.