US tries to avoid repeat of failed 1994 deal

The key issue for US is how to make the N Korea stick to any agreement after it was accused of reneging on its 1994 pledge.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2004 13:06 IST

A decade ago, fuel-starved North Korea won energy assistance from the United States in exchange for giving up its nuclear program.

North Korea took the aid but kept the program. In recent days, a chance for more energy aid was on the table as six governments tried to end the standoff over American demands that the North scrap its nuclear development for good. But a key issue is how to make the North stick to any agreement after it was accused of reneging on its 1994 pledge, which brought it oil and help in building two civilian nuclear power plants- aid that is now suspended.

Despite the North's uneven track record, analysts say that this time, a carefully structured deal could work. The famine-stricken North is more desperate than ever- and this agreement would be signed with all of its neighbors, including allies China and Russia, leaving the isolated regime with nowhere to turn if it reneges. "This time, it's multilateral. It has a bit more binding power," says Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongkuk University in Seoul.

The talks, which were set to end Saturday, have produced no hint of a substantive settlement or word of possible enforcement measures. Negotiators reportedly agreed to have lower-level officials meet in coming weeks to work on the complex details of the dispute.

The United States is demanding the complete, verifiable dismantling of the North's nuclear program. That would require intrusive inspections of its declared and suspected nuclear facilities- something that Pyongyang has been reluctant to allow with in the past.

The 1994 deal with the United States collapsed two years ago after American officials said North Korea was working on a uranium-based nuclear program in violation of the agreement. South Korea's delegate to the talks, Lee Soo-hyuck, said Russia and China offered to contribute to its energy offer, although Beijing says its aid isn't linked to the nuclear talks. By some estimates, China also provides about three-quarters of the North's fuel and almost half its food.

Beijing reportedly offered the North aid worth US$50 million to US$100 million to take part in the latest talks.

That gives China and South Korea leverage, said Ralph Cossa, of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank in Honolulu. "South Korea and China can say, `Look, if you want the next payment, you have to deliver,"' Cossa said. But still, he noted, "the leverage works only if you're willing to use it." Pyongyang says it was forced to restart work on its own nuclear power plant due to desperate energy shortages.

The North is trying to get South Korean electricity and gas from the Kovykta gas field in Russia's Far East- a resource coveted also by China, Japan and South Korea.

The North's energy crisis began with the end of Soviet oil imports and subsidies. Drought in following years cut power output from hydroelectric plants.

North Korea imports all of its oil, but its struggling economy has little money to pay for it, while coal production has dropped due to lack of electricity to light mines.

U.S. officials point to Libya as a possible role model for the North.

The government of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is scrapping its programs for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In exchange, it won support from the U.N. atomic agency for peaceful nuclear programs in agriculture and industry- and pledges from Washington to lift crippling economic sanctions.

The shift is likely to bring oil-rich Libya a flood of foreign investment.

While the North lacks Libya's commercial appeal, Pyongyang also wants to break out of its isolation, Cossa said.

"What Libya says is, 'Look, there's another option,"' he said.

First Published: Feb 28, 2004 13:06 IST