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Debate Over Bush Decision Not to Certifiy North Korean Nuclear Compliance - 2002-03-23

The Bush administration will not certify to Congress that North Korea is complying with its part of the 1994 agreement which froze the country's nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials say the president hopes this decision will encourage North Korea to fulfill its international commitments. Analysts differ on whether that will be the case.

The 1994 Agreed Framework arose out of international concern that North Korea was producing weapons-grade plutonium with the aim of developing nuclear weapons.

Under the accord, North Korea promised to freeze and dismantle its graphite nuclear reactors. It agreed to let the International Atomic Energy Agency monitor that process and inspect its other nuclear facilities.

In exchange, an international consortium, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, promised to help North Korea replace its graphite reactors with light water reactors, which do not produce weapons-grade plutonium. Until the new reactors are operational, which they are expected to be by 2005, the United States is supplying 500,000 tons of fuel each year to cover North Korea's energy needs.

Until now, the U.S. administration has certified each year that North Korea has been fulfilling its part of the agreement. But the Bush administration says Pyongyang has not provided enough information to allow it to make that certification this year. The administration is not changing its approach to North Korea at this time, but wants to issue a stern warning to North Korea that the nuclear accord may be in jeopardy.

Larry Wortzel, the director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says President Bush is taking a realistic approach. He says North Korea is not living up to many promises in the 1994 accord. "The North Koreans and (President) Kim Jong Il have not reciprocated for many of the things they agreed to do with South Korea," he says. "But most importantly it's simply impossible to verify in many cases where food and fuel aid is going and what's going on with their whole nuclear program."

Mr. Wortzel says North Korea has allowed inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency at the former nuclear reactor site but not at other facilities. And he says inspectors are not able to verify what has happened to the spent nuclear fuel that was removed from the graphite reactors.

Daniel Poneman was a member of the U.S. negotiating team that worked out the Agreed Framework. He says it is true that North Korea has not fully complied with parts of the accord that deal with North-South Korean dialogue and missile proliferation. But Mr. Poneman, now a senior fellow at The Forum for International Policy in Washington, says North Korea has been complying with the core provisions relating to plutonium production. "To outward appearances, they have been compliant, in the sense of allowing the continuing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to ensure that there's no separation of plutonium, that the cameras and seals that the international agency uses to monitor that commitment seem to be in place," he says.

The agreement says that when the light water reactors are almost ready, but before the delivery of key components, North Korea will come into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr. Poneman says North Korea is not yet taking these steps and that seems to have prompted the Bush administration's decision. "If there is some other information that is available only to government sources that relates to some, for example, some covert or undisclosed nuclear weapons activities, then, I think, refusal to certify would be justified," he says. "However, if in fact, the reason for not certifying is that the North Koreans have not taken steps years in advance to come into compliance at a later date with their Agreed Framework obligations, I do not think that would be a solid basis for not certifying."

Mr. Poneman notes the document does not specify a date when Pyongyang needs to be in compliance with IAEA safeguards. He says if the nuclear reactor components are ready but North Korea is not in full compliance, then delivery can just wait until the North takes the necessary steps, however long that may be.

Larry Wortzel says the U.S. decision is designed to force North Korea to move more quickly. "I think that what was happening is that Kim Jong Il had made the decision that if he just kept holding out, he would continue to get the food and the fuel aid from the Korean Energy Development Organization and from the Agreed Framework, right up to the last minute when he would then say, 'No, the International Atomic Energy Agency can't come in.' It forces, I think, North Korea earlier to really decide whether they're going to comply with what they've agreed to do or not," he says.

Although President Bush is refusing to certify North Korea's compliance with the deal, the United States says it will uphold its part of the arrangement by continuing fuel shipments to North Korea. Mr. Wortzel says that was a humanitarian decision by the president, to do what he can to prevent more North Koreans from starving. But Mr. Wortzel says funding for the fuel shipments needs congressional approval, and he does not know how long that will continue.